Review Summary: Welcome to the Age of Aquarius.
This year has been monumental for R&B as a genre. The seeds planted in 2011 by Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and James Blake have finally blossomed into a full-fledged genre resurgence, with artists like SOHN, Banks, FKA twigs, PartyNextDoor and more attempting to channel the shadowy aesthetic. With this en-masse genre revival comes a fair number of very important up-and-comers, and this seems to be a tent pole year for them. Enter Tinashe, an accomplished former pop star who cut her teeth on this subgenre in 2011 with her debut mixtape “In Case We Die,” an accomplished but somewhat inconsistent project that flipped from braggadocios pop to introspective bedroom banter in what seemed like the drop of a hat. Fast forward 3 years and we’ve got “Aquarius,” Tinashe’s debut.
One of the most often (and most apt) comparisons that this album will warrant is one to fellow R&B debutante FKA twigs who, like Tinashe, finds her background as a singer/dancer who finally stepped into the limelight properly. The primary reason for this comparison (aside from the whole black female dancer thing) is that they both work hard to evoke an aesthetic based on diffusion. Twigs and Tinashe both hide in the nuances of their production, peeking out once in a while to deliver a gut-punch of a couplet or belt a particular phrase. This approach works well for them and the narratives that they tell, perfectly fitting with the scorned woman subject of most of their lyrics.
But what really sets Tinashe apart from Twigs is her willing embrace of pop ideals over songcraft or substance. Lead single “2 On” is a perfect example of this. While it is a bit of a sonic red herring, the lyrical content and general “party until you die” attitude carries over. “Cold Sweat,” one of the album’s better tracks, features a trap-influenced instrumental that wouldn't be out of place on either the new Weeknd release or the new SchoolBoy Q album (he does show up on this album twice, with an abhorrent verse on “2 On” and some hypeman duty on “Feels Like Vegas,” another standout). “Pretend” is essentially a straight-up pop track chopped-and-screwed, and “All Hands on Deck” is essentially a retread of “2 On.” These tracks prove that, had she wanted to, Tinashe could’ve made an entirely radio-friendly album full of DJ Mustard beats and mindless cannon-fodder pop.
But the interesting thing about this album is that she didn’t. Tinashe tries very hard across the entire album to rope in themes of oppression and fame’s toll on the privileged. And while these themes aren't new to Tinashe (“In Case We Die,” “Reverie,” and “Black Water” all had their clunky political moments), the way that they’re downplayed and integrated into the wider scope of the album makes for a much more impactful attack. When she sings about how fame is hard to deal with on “Cold Sweat” or about how the government wants to blind people to the Age of Aquarius on the title track, there’s a palpable connection between that the romantic conflicts detailed on “Pretend” and “Far Side of the Moon.” She again inserts a bunch of useless interludes into the album (like she did on “Black Water”) but they at least help this album flow while they essentially just tried to promote a false sense of anxiety on “Black Water.”
The last thing worth noting about this album is, of course, Tinashe’s vocals and lyrics. Receiving a huge investment from her studio has done wonders to how her voice is treated on these songs. The vocals are crispy and artfully reverbed, letting the rich peaks of her voice reverberate through the cavernous tracks. Tinashe’s never been one to belt verses a la Jessie Ware or Beyoncé, but the melismatic croons that she’s essentially known for have become more tremulous, more ridden with anxiety, and the lines that she sings carry more emotional weight. Even on the hype tracks (“2 On,” “Feels Like Vegas,”), there’s a desperation that seems intentional, almost like she’s actively recognizing that these visions of an unfettered party lifestyle are not real and that the real state of things is much worse. This, combined with a black book full of apocalyptic cliché lyrics, makes “Aquarius” somewhat of a concept album, far more dense than one would expect from the singles.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Tinashe’s “Aquarius” is, by no means, the best R&B album of the year or the best R&B debut of the year (both of those honors go to FKA twigs). What “Aquarius” is is an incredibly accomplished and lithe debut from one of R&B and pop’s most promising starlets. When compared with Tinashe’s previous work, “Aquarius” stands as a remarkable show of growth and promise. While it does have its nadirs and clunky couplets, it still stands head and shoulders above many of R&B’s “best” releases this year.