Monday, October 13, 2014

album review: 'aquarius' by tinashe

If any of you remember my reviews from 2013, particularly any where I talked about R&B, I may have mentioned that I didn't tend to be a huge fan of the genre, mostly tied to underwritten lyrics, songwriting topics that didn't really evolve, and - particularly in modern years - a brand of synthetic production that was really bleaker than the subject matter could support. 

Well, this year seems to have been doing its best to crush my predilections towards the genre into rubble, because not only is R&B bigger than ever this year, there have been some genuinely great records in this vein. I've only warmed more to the FKA Twigs debut since I reviewed it, and Jhene Aiko's Souled Out is still one of my favourite albums of the year, mostly for proving all my preconceptions surrounding R&B nearly completely wrong in terms of songwriting, themes, and instrumentation. And considering that R&B - particularly female-fronted R&B, and especially the stuff drawing inspiration from the indie scene - has only gotten bigger this year, I figured that keeping my eye on the artists who actually land chart success could prove very interesting.

And sure enough, I started getting requests to cover Tinashe, a California-based R&B singer who I most recognized from - and I can't believe I'm going to mention this - Two And A Half Men, where she played Jake's girlfriend Celeste. Originally a member of the girl group The Stunners, she began making mixtapes from her home studio, which eventually caught the serious attention of RCA Records who signed her and overloaded her with the biggest producers in mainstream R&B and hip-hop. And with an album full of interludes and guest appearances, it looked to have a fair bit of ambition behind it too, so I gave it a couple listens - what did I find?

Honestly, not much. I don't know what I expecting from her big hit single '2 On', but if Souled Out by Jhene Aiko is the sort of R&B I like - intelligent, layered, melodic, emotionally driven - Aquarius by Tinashe is not. I'm not going to say this album is bad - because really, on a certain level, it kind of works - but it reminds me a lot of YG's My Krazy Life in that it's got a simple focus and there is ambition here to say more and for some people I can definitely see this album really resonating, but it's also limited on all sides by production, lyrics, and even Tinashe as a performer. And yet at the same time, I can see this record having some of the broadest overall appeal of the R&B albums I've reviewed this year, because it's definitely the most modern and commercial.

So on that note, let's start with the instrumentation... and really, I'm not all that impressed. Tinashe managed to pull together your typical mainstream pop R&B producers - Boi-1da, Mike Will Made It, Detail, DJ Mustard, and even Stargate - and surprise surprise, it sounds exactly like what you'd expect from them taking a crack at the current trends in indie R&B. The bass is heavy and leaden, the percussion and beats are shoved to the front of the mix over any sort of melody, and when the music doesn't feel swallowed in reverb, it sounds like its underwater, complete with the pitch shifting on backing vocals which I have never liked. And sure, the percussion often sounds brittle and has some texture, and there are points where the keyboards to pick up fragments of a melodic hook, but it sure as hell doesn't stick because the piano line is often so thin and high that it has no memorable presence besides adding to a 'pretty' vibe that is undercut with every harsher element and or interjection of gang vocals - the balance they're trying here does not really work. And that's not saying there aren't moments on this album that I like, because there are - the guitar solo that comes out of nowhere on 'Bet' was appreciated, I kind of liked the dreamy Janet Jackson-inspired flourishes on 'How Many Times', the clattering percussion was a little too loud on 'Pretend' but the song had a good vibe, and the muted pianos on the back end of 'Baited Breath' were pretty if clumsy. Hell, the interludes 'Indigo Child', 'Deep In The Night', and 'The Storm' were pretty solid too for creating some atmosphere. But overall, the mixes feel cluttered, shallow, and way too percussion heavy to back themselves up - if you have a song called 'Wildfire' that does not evoke a single image of flames at all, you're doing it wrong. And that's not counting the out-of-place pan flute breakdown on 'All Hands On Deck' which does not fit at all with the DJ Mustard-inspired melody or cheap chorus synth line, or how Mike Will Made It's production on 'Thug Cry' is so hollow and washed out and yet so shallow that it sounds astoundingly cheap and weak.

Granted, Tinashe doesn't exactly help matters... and here's the thing. I read a fair few reviews that were critical of Jhene Aiko's choice to use less of her vocal range on Souled Out. But given the intentional feel of malaise that she was looking to create throughout the first half of that album, plus with the references back to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it completely fit. Tinashe does not really have that excuse, and outside of the pretty dense multi-tracked vocal leads across this album, she doesn't really modulate beyond a breathless coo supported by pitch correction and a more strident voice that never really rises above average. I'm not saying she's a bad singer, but we're definitely not seeing much of her full range, and I don't get a huge amount of emotional investment from her delivery either. Most of this is because she spends much of the album delivering her lyrics in a 'faded' affectation that does not really grab much attention, and certainly does not fit when you place her on a track with Schoolboy Q delivering a characteristically raunchy verse on '2 On' or when Future is spraying his jittery, half-Autotuned nonsense all over 'How Many Times' and sounds just awful.

This takes us to lyrics, and remember how I said at the beginning how I thought with the interludes this album would have a fair sense of ambition or maybe a story to tell? Yeah, that doesn't really happen here, because the interludes really only add atmosphere rather than contribute to a nonexistent narrative. And normally that would be fine, but I'm having a hard time with this album presenting any sort of consistency lyrically. There are songs like 'Bet' or 'Cold Sweat' where she's trying to go for 'finally made it' vibe analogous to a lot of hip-hop artists, or on songs like 'All Hands On Deck', 'Far Side Of The Moon', and 'Wildfire' where she tries to drive home that she's dumping some guy. And I'm sorry, but while Tinashe has the dismissiveness down on these songs, I don't exactly find them convincing, especially since 'Far Side Of The Moon' has 'not over it' written all over the track. And to be fair, she does comment on that uncertainty in the song, but it still doesn't stick the landing all that well. And that's not even getting into her sex-related songs, because on the one hand you have 'How Many Times' and 'Feels Like Vegas' which build to decent vibes, but between Future's awful verse and how easily she drops into a very submissive role... and yet it's so good she can make a 'Thug Cry'. But when you follow that with 'Baited Breath', a song very much in the school of 'Let's Wait A While' by Janet Jackson and significantly more convincing... well, it's a bit of a mixed message.

And this comes back to my primary issue with Tinashe, in that we get a lot of facets of an artistic persona, but not a lot to define it. She's the party girl, the alpha female whose sex is on fire unless she's asking for the guy to wait or calling him daddy. And that's not even touching on the pseudospiritual flourishes that pepper the lyrics in the interludes and on the title track, most of which feels jacked from the song of the same name from the musical Hair almost fifty years ago! My point is that there's a lot of breadth, but not a lot of depth - and that frustrates me because I know she's capable of it. I listened to her mixtapes, there was real potential there, and hell, there are moments lyrically on this album that do show nuance. I already mentioned the self-awareness on 'Far Side Of The Moon' and 'Baited Breath', but there's also 'Pretend', the troubled relationship song with A$AP Rocky that shows her looking for the illusion of happiness that she knows won't last. And that means parts of this record feels shallow - which would be fine for tracks like '2 On' or 'All Hands On Deck' or even 'Feels Like Vegas' which don't need depth for their impact... but the execution does not impress me.

So in the end, I was really underwhelmed by this album. Tinashe's Aquarius is not bad, but I have a hard time calling it good or all that interesting, especially in a year where we had for women in R&B specifically new albums from Mariah Carey, SZA, Ariana Grande, Banks, and especially Jhene Aiko and FKA Twigs. That said, there are moments I did like and appreciate, which is enough to save this album at a solid 5/10, but as a whole, Aquarius did nothing for me. If you've heard the many other R&B albums dropped thus far this year, give this a listen, but don't be surprised if you don't get much.

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