Thursday, November 10, 2016

album review: 'nightride' by tinashe

The last time I covered Tinashe in 2014, it didn't go well.

And there are a number of factors to consider as of why that is. Part of it was overexposure: the competition for debuting female R&B acts in 2014 was pretty fierce, between Jhene Aiko, FKA Twigs, Kehlani, Teyana Taylor and SZA, and that's before you add in Banks, Ariana Grande, or the long-awaited but tepid return from Mariah Carey. Tinashe's lane was catering to more towards commercial R&B and hip-hop, but even then it was a record spread thin, with more ideas than it could conceivably execute, more breadth than depth, not helped by some frustratingly inconsistent production. And when you combine all of that with it not being one of my better reviews from a writing standpoint, I can definitely understand why people got mad.

But from there, Tinashe didn't seem to have the staying power and momentum that you'd expect coming from '2 On'. Sure, she was touring heavily in 2015, but her self-released mixtape didn't cross over to the mainstream outside of her fanbase, albeit with some intriguing visuals. And while I've never really been wild about her singing, I did think she did a solid job on her collaboration with Snakehips and Chance The Rapper much earlier this year - that song really should have been a bigger hit, let me tell you. So I figured I'd give Tinashe another chance... and then without much warning, she released Nightride as a digital album, the first part of a two part project with Joyride in 2017, similar to what reportedly Tove Lo did with Lady Wood earlier this year. Now I've got mixed opinions on this: I get the appeal, as the digital visual project Endless did drive the anticipation for Frank Ocean's Blonde not days later... but on the other hand you risk flooding the market, or delivering half a project that might not hold as well on its own without the second piece - and since Tinashe doesn't really make succinct projects, creating a two-part project that could have been trimmed down. But regardless, I figured I'd give NIghtride a chance - how was it?

Well, it's better than Aquarius, but I can't exactly say that it's all that impressive either. I get the feeling a lot of Tinashe fans will end up treating this like a mixtape, or a precursor to Joyride next year... but at the same time, it's not like we've been hurting for strong R&B this year, and between the Knowles sisters, Frank Ocean, Usher and Anderson .Paak, Nightride didn't really surprise me all that much. It's a little less commercial, arguably a little more refined in spots... but there are lingering issues from Aquarius that are cropping up here, and I'm not convinced Tinashe can convincingly back up what she's bringing forward. 

Well, okay, that's not quite fair - in fact, the more I listened through this project, the more I started to see what Tinashe could bring to the table as a singer. She doesn't precisely have a huge range, but on more subdued or restrained tracks she can indeed be expressive in a cooing, sensual 90s Janet Jackson range. Hell, give her just enough reverb or multi-tracking and songs like on 'Lucid Dreaming', 'Sunburn', 'You Don't Know Me', 'Spacetime', and the closing track 'Ghetto Boy', which was produced by Devonte Hynes and is by far the most interesting and potent track here, even if it does tilt a little closer to pop or alternative R&B. And this highlights a problem in R&B vocal production that I've touched on plenty of times, namely that for more seductive or restrained tones so few producers have any clue what the hell they're doing. Metro Boomin is the biggest culprit here on 'Sacrifices' and 'Ride Of Your Life', but it's not like the flattened layers courtesy of Illangelo, Boi-1da, and Vinylz work on 'Party Favours' either - they're emphasizing a harshness that doesn't suit Tinashe's delivery, and when she tries for that cadence or melody, she either goes sharp or sounds painfully unsupported. And that's not counting points like 'C'est La Vie', where she picked up a similar melodic cadence to what Beyonce used on 'Sorry', to say nothing of the strong FKA Twigs vibe I was getting from 'Spacetime'.

Granted, if we're going to be talking about instrumentation production issues, they're all over this record, not just in the wild shifts in quality from track to track but also how, again, those sorts of discordant layers and tones don't fit with Tinashe's vocals or content. And what's frustrating is that the discordance isn't coming from distortion but melodic choices - it's not even darker minor chords but dissonant or diminished chords that don't resolve, which against the much sharper beats can leave tracks feeling stilted and awkward. Take 'Sacrifices' - the swampy bass, the sharp crack, the hi-hats, thank god the faded backing vocals manage to blur over this hollowed, muffled melody line, even if the production does feel far cheaper than it should. Similar case for 'Company' with the blocky gurgle of synth and chiptune accents around the melody and how flat the vocal layers feel, it sounds slapdash. At least with 'Soul Glitch' it tries to have some more hollow depth with the murky rattle in the back, but then you get the vocal melody where she's slurring over these tones and it doesn't flatter her at all! But after a few songs of quality we slip back to more blatantly atonal melodies on 'Ride Of Your Life' against that drippy high synth that somehow pile in even worse melodic layers that don't flatter the main vocal melody, and that's before we get 'Party Favours', with the flat tones, inert main hook, and production that sounds like a bad Britney Spears song circa 2004! And what's exasperating is that there are examples on this album of the instrumentation and production coming through: the liquid bassy snippets of 'Lucid Dreaming', the blurry melancholy of 'Sunburn', the wobbling bass accenting the glittering depth of 'Spacetime', the prominent piano playing of the sharper beat and snap of 'Touch Pass'... hell, Tinashe even managed to make the gimmick of reversed vocals work way better than expected on 'You Don't Know Me' within the thematic idea of the song, especially as the mix gives her room to breathe. Of course, the best case, again, is 'Ghetto Boy', with the blurred over keys, deeper echo of the beat, and an actual guitar surging through the outro that would have been welcome anywhere else on this album! 

But let's get real, many of these same problems were evident on Aquarius, so what would make Nightride better? Well, put aside we have no godawful guest verses to deal with, I'd argue the lyrics take some steps in the right direction, at least in terms of defining Tinashe as a unique performer within R&B - sensual without being hyper-sexualized, confident and comfortable moving through guys with a modern approach to hookups that shows she isn't incredibly focused on the relationship at this stage of her life. I'm not going to say we get a huge amount of sophistication - her string of love songs, sex songs, party tracks and breakup songs don't really stray outside of conventional territory - but there are details I did appreciate. Songs like 'C'est La Vie' and 'High Speed Chase' might want the guy to stick around, but it never feels desperate - she's just looking to share the moment before she has to leave, acknowledging how it's only fleeting. 'Company' flips the friends-with-benefits situation in favour of her, and there's an element of frankness that makes me wish I liked the rest of the song more. Hell, when she finds more of a spark on 'Sacrifices' she's almost surprised! And sure, lyrically we're not getting mind-blowing material from 'Spacetime' or 'Touch Pass', and the romance of 'Ghetto Boy' can feel a tad simplistic, but they work in their respective lanes. On the flip side, there aren't many examples of the lyrics outright sucking, either: yes, the whole 'party favors' metaphor on the track of the same name is pretty forced, even as a double entendre, and the writing on 'Soul Glitch' just feels clunky to me, and 'Sunburn'... okay, I actually did look this up, you can get sunburns on your eyes, but still, feels a little forced there... which is saying something, because lyrical flow is one subtle strength this record has.

But as a whole... this is decent. I'm not sure how much, if ever, I'm going to return to this, and it's hard not to think that Tinashe sits midway between Beyonce and FKA Twigs, never quite reaching either of them. But this is an improvement on Nightride, and Tinashe definitely shows signs of growing into a sound and style that can flatter her voice and lead to some decent tunes. For me, light 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of her style of R&B. Otherwise... it's definitely not the best R&B you'll hear this year, but I've also heard worse, so yeah, worth a listen.

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