Wednesday, April 18, 2018

album review: 'joyride' by tinashe

At this point it's hard not to feel like Tinashe should be bigger.

And believe it or not, this has absolutely nothing to do with my opinion on her music - I didn't really like Aquarius, and while I found Nightride a modest improvement, there was R&B I liked more that year - hell, more R&B I liked both years. And in a sense it's hard to escape the feeling that Tinashe might have fallen victim to a peculiar phenomenon I've observed with rising R&B starlets: they get one big mainstream-crossover hit, their breakthrough album gets critical acclaim and hits a bunch of year-end lists... and then if they don't have the guaranteed follow-up smash on the next project, the interest dries up in record time, even if it might turn out those later projects are better or more interesting. But even then, Tinashe is on a major label, you would think there'd be more of a marketing push to break her into the spotlight... but her sales have not been great, and it would be a damn tragedy if she releases her strongest project to the weakest public response yet. Granted, I did have concerns given how much Joyride was delayed and that it had the guest stars that she hadn't needed on Nightride, and it's not like Offset, Future, Ty Dolla $ign and French Montana are known for consistent quality, but given the years of development time, there had to be something potent here, right?

Okay, I'm going to try to be as charitable as possible to this project. Let me set aside any possible thematic ties to Nightride - the car references have always been peripheral at best, and I'm not judging Joyride on not revealing any deeper thematic depths to the last record, even if it was originally intended as part two a few years back. So I'm treating this like the leaner, standalone project where you can tell the label is pulling out about half of the necessary stops to get it to market and sell, even though with the guest stars it might be a losing battle at this point. And saying all that, while there are still problems with this project that have sadly been consistent with Tinashe's albums... this might be the first that I've come close to liking, if only for certain deep cuts that show glimpses of what might have been. 

And the fact I'm singling out individual songs more than anything on this project is indicative of the first of those consistent issues: despite Tinashe showing arguably the most vocal range and diversity she's ever brought to the table, her production is all over the place in terms of sound and quality. Some have highlighted this as Tinashe not seeming to have a distinctive identity, but as a singer that doesn't seem to be true on Joyride - more than ever her restrained but elastic cooing allows her to bend her vocal range from chill sensuality to a slightly more ragged and expressive intensity, and depending on how her multi-tracking is arranged, she's arguably more effective in this lane than she's ever been before. Hell, across the best cuts here you could argue it's the vocal arrangement that's given Tinashe the most personality she's ever had, especially when the harmonies are more lush and delicate - if I was recommending this record at all it'd be for the vocal arrangements. The larger problem is that, just like on Nightride, none of the assorted producers across this record gives her anything close to consistent vocal production, and when you factor in guest performers as well and an increasingly broad selection of styles, it makes a performer who does have a defined presence seem less distinct. From the super-clean vocal pickup of 'No Drama', 'Me So Bad', and 'Faded Love' - likely to facilitate guest verses that add nothing - to the oddly grainy pickup of 'Stuck With Me' which features Little Dragon in an arrangement that's not so much clashing but not really mixing, even where Tinashe gets multi-tracking the fidelity of her tone is all over the place. And while sometimes you get arrangements that can surpass a flattened filter like on 'No Contest' with its sharper, wiry bounce or the title track, which easily has some of the most momentum but has this really ugly oily film on top of the synth line, she honestly sounds her best on the closing piano ballad 'Fires And Flames', where she gets the space and light touch for the smoother tones to really come through. And I won't deny that some of this might come down to production budgets, especially when it comes to the glassy layers that get tacked on to 'He Don't Want It' or especially the interlude 'Ain't Good For Ya', or how her voice tops out in the former song - that's bad mixing, and there's not many excuses for that. Hell, if you want an example of how slightly rougher vocal production can work, look at the dank, bluesy vibe of 'Salt' - the vocal line is a little flatter, but it still opens up just enough to let Tinashe's richer lower register come through - which means there's not much of an excuse for the spots that do feel slapdash!

And really, I'm focusing so much on the vocal arrangements and production because beyond it, this record can feel really thin - muted synths, occasionally hints of liquid guitar or a violin on the title track, trap beats that nearly all sound flat and lacking better fidelity or blending, and songwriting that sadly doesn't add up to much. That's the other thing, believe it or not, which convinces me that Tinashe does have something of a defined identity, because even if I find nearly all of these songs lacking in greater detail or feeling underwritten - she has multiple hooks where she just sings la-la-la or stutters words to fill up space - it is at least consistent in that lane, both in writing style and subject matter. It's a little single-minded in its pursuit of hookups, sure, but at its best Tinashe at least seems self-aware how this freewheeling approach can have consequences, and she doesn't shy away from facing them, from the expectations of disaster on 'Stuck With Me' to the genuine tension that comes from 'Keep Your Eyes On The Road' and the title track. What gets interesting is when you get songs with a little more detail, like 'Salt' where it seems pretty apparent this relationship was not built to last, but she doesn't want said ex being a dick in their departure. Or take 'Fires And Flames', where the partner is self-destructive and she's trying to coax him down for one last night, but you get the impression between the lines that she's probably going to wind up leaving in the end, maybe even before that final night. Granted, I'm relying on vocal personality to convey more details and subtlety than the actual words themselves, and to Tinashe's credit, outside of the goofy hook of 'Me So Bad' she never really embarrasses herself in her writing. What I'd argue hurts her more is that without stronger pop hooks or presence, the basics just aren't as gripping to many, and you find yourself looking for more complexity that might not be there.

But as a whole... look, it would be very easy for me to pan this record - it's underwritten, the production can feel slapdash, the guest appearances add very little, and you can argue that three albums in Tinashe has not succeeded in finding a distinct lane. And that's probably all true... but at the same time, Joyride was the first Tinashe record that had more than one really good cut and gave me the impression that if she landed with one consistent producer who knew how to give her vocal arrangements space, we could have a legitimately solid R&B record. As it is, those vocal harmonies did enough to notch this to a 6/10 for me - I'm not kidding with that, I do think this project is pretty decent and shows more promise than some have given it credit - but I also wouldn't call it essential, and if you're not sold on Tinashe, it's hard to argue this'll convince you otherwise. But hey, if you're curious... what the hell, give it a listen, it might surprise you.

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