It was the Platonic ideal of a 2014 chart-topper (Mustard on the beat—check; cheeky interpolation of a throwback hit—check; benevolent but ultimately useless Drake remix—check), so it’s no huge surprise that “2 On”, the star-making lead single from Tinashe’s debut album, Aquarius, proved to be a bit of a red herring. And while it’s still probably the best song of the Los Angeles singer/songwriter’s career, ultimately that’s a good thing. Tinashe’s post-“2 On” rise may have seemed sudden (and especially glaring, in a year where male voices overwhelmed the R&B charts), but the 21-year-old is hardly a rookie. After devoting most of her teenage years to the Stunners, a Vitamin C-founded quintet that briefly toured with Justin Bieber, she spent the last few years at work on a steady stream of promising, if unpolished, mixtapes recorded in her home studio. Those tapes—filled with dusky ballads for spooning a laptop and sounding quite at home among the glut of zoned-out, “alternative” R&B artists—got her a deal with RCA Records, but if the distance between her gently trippy mixtape work and the glossy ratchet-pop of “2 On” seemed potentially unbridgeable, it’s because she never intended to bridge it in the first place. Instead, Aquarius is an anomaly in an age of major label standardization: a debut done unmistakably on Tinashe’s own terms.
Much of Aquarius feels like an ambitious extension of Tinashe’s mixtape tracks, elevated to professional quality where they once felt muddled while leaving breadcrumb trails of idiosyncratic details leading back to her bedroom-producer past—distorted guitar solos, eerie found-sound interludes, somber spoken word bits. Sure, sometimes it’s a little much: wide-eyed lines like “What is truth, if truth is subjective?” read more like “Ever seen the back of a $20 bill on weed?” similar to peer Jhené Aiko, another recent indie-to-major transitioner with a penchant for dorm-room stoner koans. Mostly, though, Tinashe’s polished her act without dulling her edge, as the most interesting tracks on Aquarius come closest to approaching anything remotely like a radio hit—consider “How Many Times”, a Janet Jackson-referencing, late-’80s worshipping duet with Future so sultry it renders his shouty “Sh!t” flow as aphrodisiacal.
But Tinashe’s most straightforward songs come with dark subtexts. Production-wise, second single “Pretend” has all the bite of an Avril Lavigne ballad playing during the break between “Lizzie McGuire” episodes (not necessarily a knock—somehow Detail’s mushiest productions are always his best) but the lyrics find Tinashe pretending her deadbeat boyfriend, played by A$AP Rocky, isn’t a scumbag so they can get it in a few more times. “All Hands On Deck”, the album’s sole answer to “2 On”’s club-readiness, has shadowy corners not often found in radio ratchetry, and that’s not counting the song’s pan-flute breakdown: what first reads as a blithe dance instructional swiftly devolves into caustic post-break-up stunting, as Tinashe snarls, “Kiss the old me goodbye/ She’s dead and gone.”
Though Tinashe’s held on to the self-reliant tendencies that guided her mixtape days, the sense of disembodiment, sometimes verging on aloofness, that often present in her early work—a recurring pitfall of the production-driven “alt-R&B” she once fit into—is mercifully absent. Somewhat paradoxically, too, working with a bigger team has made it clearer than ever that ultimately, she’s calling the shots; even with such a breadth of instantly recognizable collaborators, from Mike WiLL Made It to Clams Casino to Devonté Hynes, the vision remains wholly Tinashe’s throughout. As she’s shed the trappings of distinctly 2010s R&B for something less easily time-stamped, she’s revealed a new and very telling set of inspirations, unmistakably the product of coming of age in the Y2K era of R&B, where Janet Jackson and Aaliyah gracefully countered choreography-happy, big-budget smashes with flashes of something darker and deeply personal.
Tinashe has a bit of the coy, collected swagger of less canonical, “Total Request Live”-era mainstays such as Mya or Christina Milian, too—especially in the sauntering “Thug Cry”—but for all that early-‘00s worship, Tinashe’s unshakeable faith in her own vision could only really pay off in a climate like right now, where a record deal is hardly the end-all be-all to a legitimate career. If the risk-taking featured on Aquarius doesn’t pan out, she can do it herself—she already has—so why not use the momentum of the biggest song of your career to propel you in the complete opposite direction?
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1yOLqiE