Review Summary: And when they finally onto me, I switch it up.
If there’s only one adjective used to describe Tinashe’s music, that adjective would be sexy. From the sensual album artwork steeped in African traditionalism to the slinky production or the erotic lyrics, Tinashe has built a career on being Aaliyah for the post-millennial, taking production that wouldn’t be out of place on a Drake or Weeknd release and mixing it with a raw feminine sexuality that most people were only recently exposed to with Beyoncé’s self-titled release. Having basically knocked at the door of perfection with her previous two mixtapes (“In Case We Die” and “Reverie”), how does Tinashe choose to continue?
Well, for one thing, she tries very hard to provide a narrative quality. Tinashe’s no stranger to addressing sociopolitical issues (the title tracks of her previous releases dealt with nuclear extinction and government oppression, respectively), but this time the number of interludes and narrative touches are almost distractingly evident. Nearly half of the album’s first seven tracks are interludes that don’t really establish a story, but set a mood of impending disaster. The concept itself is pretty cool: the collective empowerment of the black populous and the overthrow of the long-held oppressors. But aside from the title track, nothing on the album really pushes towards that narrative goal. Part of Tinashe’s plight from her first mixtape onwards has been establishing the proper balance between sociopolitical maligning and bedroom (and kitchen, and living room, and bathroom) fare. With her first mixtape, she struck a potent mix by directly correlating said bedroom fare with the overall concept (what else are you gonna do when the world’s ending besides have sex?). On “Reverie,” the concept was handled in much the same way (in a world without freedom, we can establish our own between the sheets), but with an added nuance and brevity. On “Black Water,” Tinashe pulls just a few too many pages from the Kendrick Lamar playbook of album sequencing, and suffers immensely for it.
With regard to the actual songs themselves, it’s standard Tinashe fare. Anyone with an ear knows that the girl has an impressive set of pipes that could easily lend itself to any genre. But the real improvement for this album comes in the production. Previously, most of Tinashe’s production had been handled by a dude named Legacy, of New Boyz fame (or infamy) and the soundscapes were good, but always lacked a hard-edged umf. This time around, hip-hop heavyweights Boi-1da, Dev Hynes (of Blood Orange) and !llmind show up in addition to the expected Legacy credits. Tinashe herself also produces some of the album’s superfluous yet ominous interludes, showing an inclination towards full-range artistry that’s benefited some of her forebearers.
For a pop/R&B star, Tinashe’s consistently shown promise as a talented singer and capable songwriter. On “Black Water,” she shows that she’s still capable of such feats, but the bluster of some of the album’s moments and her other choices lead to a bit of hesitance when moving forward. Travi$ Scott’s verse on ‘Vulnerable’ is trash, it’s quite literally sh*t, and the only explanation for it is RCA’s push to commercialize Tinashe and turn her into the traditional R&B songstress who allows herself to be objectified. The key to the sexuality of Tinashe’s previous mixtapes was how egalitarian they were, she’s fully in control of her entirely consensual sexual experience. Her enlightened and mildly feminist approach to addressing sex has made her previous records as monumentally forward-thinking as anything by Frank Ocean or Janelle Monae. But this time around, this feeling of sexual freedom is somewhat mitigated. Scott’s verse does a great deal of the damage, but some of the lyrics also betray this shift. ‘1 For Me’ puts Tinashe in the position of a woman offering sex as a means of keeping a man, the exact opposite of what is ostensibly her best song, ‘This Feeling’, details a sexual encounter between two people on entirely equal footing, with her being the goddess and him being the god. This time around, for too much of the album, Tinashe relegates herself to a position of subservience. The only time on the album where Tinashe seems to take control in any way is on ‘Stunt,’ which is one of the album’s highlights just because of how hard it is. The beat goes hard, and so does Tinashe. But this seems to be more an exception than the rule. And what a shame too, because Tinashe playing the rolls of “G,” “Boss,” and “Queen” made her the one to watch for the future. And without the compelling lyrical/narrative sense of Banks or the ear-turning innovation of FKA twigs, Tinashe may be on the path to being another cookie-cutter R&B star who sits idly by while her label, and her features, metaphorically fu*k her.