Review Summary: The smoothest crooning about drugs, guns and murder you'll hear this year.
In 2011 Abel Tsfaye, aka The Weeknd, made contemporary R&B cool. Not cool again. Cool for the first time. For so long the domain of melismatic, prima donna divas and wholesome, family-friendly boy bands crooning about healthy, wholesome heartache and sensual love, Tsfaye and primary producer Illangelo transformed this warm, temperate landscape into something hard, cold and corrupt. Across a trilogy of stunning mixtapes they sold bleak tales of bleak, paranoid sex, drug induced anhedonia and the emptiness of fame and wealth. The production was devoid of pop and soul influences, instead taking cues from brooding post-punk and minimalist electro.
It wasn't so much a breath of a fresh air, but a hurricane tearing through a placid and formulaic genre, inverting and twisting its core subject matter; sex was reduced little more than a mechanised act, jaded superstars sleeping with desperate drugged-up groupies, and love a knowing, predatory power game. It was no coincidence this triptych was both the most original and universally praised body of work released by any contemporary R&B artist in years. It may have introduced a whole new listenership to 'R&B' but interestingly it's had little impact upon the genre as a whole.
There have been small signs of his influence spreading to other artists. The most obvious was TALWST's bizzarely named Tentacle Sex EP that mined House of Balloons for both style and subject matter. But interestingly it's best song 'Colors' was actually the one that sounded least like Tsfaye. There were also moments on How To Dress Well's latest LP where you can feel his menacing approach to relationships coming through but on the whole Tsfaye's been far more influential on who's paying attention to contemporary R&B as opposed to what other artists sound like. Enter Tim Vocals.
Hailing from Harlem, the notorious New York neighbourhood that spawned both ASAP Rocky and Azelia Banks in the past year, this young, earnest crooner without doubt owes a debt to Tsfaye. Not so much in style, timbre or even subject matter but definitely in making the genre cool. Not since Warren G and G-Funk has anyone sung so smoothly, so convincingly, so earnestly about drugs, guns and murder. You get the feeling that Vocals may have been tempted to rap instead of sing before Tsfaye ushered in his paradigm shift.
The 13 tracks collected here are past and present hip-hop and R&B songs re-imagined and re-fashioned. Artists covered include Rihanna, MJ and of course the Weeknd himself. Vocals' cover of 'Next' sticks true to the original but he confidently holds his own against Toronto's finest and it's one of his best performances. The other highlight is 'Bags Of The Sour' where Vocals' warps Drake's bleak lament 'Marvin's Room' into a paranoid tale of drug dealing and revenge.
And on closer 'Bust My Gun' Vocals' transforms Ne-Yo's 'Sexy Love' from a sensual ode to love-making into a sensual ode to... his gun. Yes. His gun. Whether intentional or not, the absurdity of the song's hook - 'I bust my gun, cause it's what I do, I keep me one, when there's beef I carry two, I love 45s and them Lugers too' - is hilarious but surprisingly doesn't work against him. Some artists suit a little humour. The Weeknd probably isn't one of them. Tim Vocals definitely is. Elsewhere on the song Vocals' threatens 'And if you feel like you too tough and you can't get hit up, go ahead test my aim'. Death threats have never sounded so good.