Review Summary: Another one.
We’ve seen this story before. It’s a nice, aspirational story, so industry copy loves it. The story follows a newly discovered wunderkind rejecting the path the industry hoisted upon them in order to find their own unique sound. Whether it was Zayn
, Frank Ocean
, Sky Ferriera
, or The Weeknd
, the story almost always ends the same way: the experimentation or divergence pays dividends as the artist produces some work that’s different insofar as it’s “edgier” or “less commercial” than other genre works. Our good friend 6lack (pronounced “black”) has followed that same trajectory. Initially signed (somewhere) in 2011 at age 19, 6lack has been lurking in the background for the better part of a decade, ostensibly honing his skills and refining his sound. But what makes Free 6lack
so confounding to listen to is that, for all this talk of rejecting industry convention and rebelling, the album sounds exactly like what a mainstream R&B/hip-hop record should
sound like in 2017. For better and for worst.
What’s immediately noteworthy about this album is that, sonically, it’s not exactly groundbreaking. The album mines the same fertile post-Weeknd ground that dvsn
, Bryson Tiller
, and Roy Woods
have been plundering. The production here is a bit more ambitious (“MTFU” boasts some fancy Soulection keys in its latter half, “Worst Luck” is more Mark Pritchard
than DJ Eskimo) than most releases, and seems to find its roots more in albums like Fennesz’s Venice
than it does in EVOL
or What A Time To Be Alive
. This experimental edge isn’t all that uncommon in contemporary music (there are artists on Soundcloud like Blank Body and FIFTYGRAND who’ve been doing weirder things with the same palettes), but seeing it in a relatively high-profile release serves as an interesting test of its sales potential. Not all the tracks are all that amorphous or avant-garde. In fact, many of the track are immediately impactful trap bangers with radio-friendly hooks. “Rules” especially stands as the obvious eventual single, while “Prblms” has already demonstrated its single potential.
What’s particularly noteworthy about the intersection of the vocals and the production is how easily it defies genre trappings. Modern rap music and R&B are virtually indistinguishable these days (R&Bers Anderson.Paak
and August Alsina
were both included in XXL’s showcase of freshman rappers, and rappers like Drake, Future, and Young Thug are singing all the time), but 6lack does better than almost all the aforementioned in straddling the line between rapper and singer. The murky, pitch-black production is equally suited to low-key trap-rappers and trap-soulers, and the fact that the BPM never really rises for a definitive “rap” moment means that there is no real straight-forward “rap” song here. But the verses are regularly sang or rapped in a way that recalls others who’d ostensibly be considered “rappers.” It’s a nice bit of subversion, even if it is a bit overplayed.
And the vocals on this album don’t exactly help dispel that sentiment. 6lack is a fairly dexterous rapper, and he often comes through with at least aesthetically-exquisite rhymes. However, his voice is innocuous enough that, when he eventually lapses into an AutoTuned drawl (as almost all modern rappers are wont to do), he’s easily mistaken for the hordes of other sizzurp-sipping trap-soulers that have broken into the popular consciousness recently. That’s not an especially bad thing for a new artist, but as I noted in both my dvsn and Roy Woods reviews, being ambiguous and easily mistaken for other artists is a surefire way to get relegated to one hit wonder status.
But where 6lack sinks in vocal variety, he soars in storytelling and self-mythologizing. Tracks like “Never Know” and “EA6” demonstrate 6lack’s above-average ability to build a narrative around himself that suits the tone and tenor of the production. Even on the more traditional brag-rap tracks, he’s able to inject some very personal lines about his come-up. On “Rules,” he overtly references the 6 years he spent learning the ropes, talking about how “[…]I just came off of six years of them ***s/From exes to labels and being homeless/I didn't have it, wasn't able.” On “Ex Calling,” he makes a number of references to how his Percocet dependence has alienated the people in his life. It’s both a nice fourth-wall break (the beat samples Future
’s “Perkys Calling,” a song more overtly about Percocet addiction) and a cleaver bit of soul-bearing on what is otherwise a fairly run-of-the-mill “I’m too cool for my old girl” song. On “Never Know,” he takes the classic come-up story (basically “all the haters doubted me until I arrived!”), but writes it like a break-up song, wherein the “haters” are reduced to one person who undersold his worth and trampled on his emotions.
is a perplexing, but ultimately rewarding experience to behold. On the one hand, it’s a contemporary album through-and-through, from the feigned blunted emotions to the murky Toronto trap production. Songs like “Ex Calling” and “Prblms” will undoubtedly fit comfortably between tentpole radio artists, if only for a couple weeks. But on the other hand, we see an album that at least attempts to push the boundaries of what’s commercially viable (at least sonically) while still interjecting telling bits of true emotion and vulnerability. It’s a high-wire act for the ages, and listening to it at least once brings with it any number of engaging and interesting observations.