Review Summary: Tinashe's second, true to its name, is a wild ride - one that is ultimately worth the wait
There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled over the long gestation period for Tinashe’s sophomore album, Joyride
. It’s a familiar story: an artist desperate for creative freedom being put through the ringer in hopes of recreating a hit. For fans of her pop-adjacent brand of sinewy alt-R&B, the wait was made even more painful by the bipolar A&R promotion campaign, which produced singles that were obviously intended to blow up (“Superlove,” in all its saccharine sexuality, was the most radical of these efforts), but never quite got traction. “Player,” an exceedingly maudlin collaboration with Chris Brown
was the best performing, but a public feud with Brown and RCA’s negligence towards the album’s roll-out ultimately led to the single (and the subsequent ones, including the aforementioned “Superlove,” and “Flame,” a paint-by-numbers pop anthem that deviated so far from Tinashe’s wheelhouse that it was likened by one reviewer to a Taylor Swift
song) being either scrapped, or culled into the stop-gap mixtape Nightride
. Now, nearly 4 years removed from Aquarius
, the follow-up is finally out, and the best and worst parts of the album are a testament to its long gestation.
The best and most heartening thing about Joyride
is that Tinashe has never sounded better. The vocal production lends her vocals, which have traditionally been made to sound thin and ethereal, new width and strength. This lends some of the album’s more radical tonal shifts, like “Me So Bad” and “Salt,” a warmth and range that makes them sound unique, even as the production on the former rings as a pale imitation of a dozen other dancehall and reggaetón-influenced chart-toppers (getting French Montana, who scored the biggest hit of his career with the similarly dancehall inspired “Unforgettable,” to feature was a particularly naked promo move).
In addition to the improved vocal production, the songwriting peaks are some of the highest in Tinashe’s career. Either as a result of label pressure or simply because of her own personal artistic development, Tinashe has become more adept at writing catchy hooks and melodies. Singles “Faded Love” and “No Drama” both have earworm choruses that make previous commercial successes like “2 On” seem hook-averse in comparison. This strengthens the songs themselves, as the hooks lend them a focus that some of the more ponderous tracks on Nightride
did not have. The album’s two best songwriting moments – “Stuck with Me,” which features alt-R&B patron saints Little Dragon
, and “Fire and Flames” – also demonstrate a turn towards more vivid, personal songwriting.
“Stuck with Me” is of particular note in how it effectively bridges both the album’s themes of self-doubt, sexual liberation, and success with the competing sonic influences present throughout. Its minimalist instrumental has all the makings of a tropical house or dancehall song, but instead of diving headlong into it (again, like “Me So Bad”) it holds back. This restraint lends it a breezy groove that gives Tinashe room to demonstrate her lyrical and vocal strengths. “I like your vision, I can see through/You be the lock I put my key through/I got an angel on my shoulder/But the devil keep me colder” she growls in the first verse. The song’s themes of abuse and co-dependence will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Skylar Grey-era of pop music, but Tinashe’s performance lends the material a resignation that is absent from most songs of this ilk. Compound this with a Yukimi Nagano vocal feature that beautifully complements the song’s instrumental and Tinashe’s voice (the harmonizing in the second chorus is enough to want another collaboration, if not a full collaborative project) and you’ve got a track that builds on all the promise of Tinashe’s early mixtapes. But what’s more, the song could easily make a play for the charts, and the pairing of Little Dragon and Tinashe is both qualitatively and thematically more fruitful than the album’s others.
Aside from Little Dragon’s appearance, the features are some of the album’s biggest faults. “No Drama,” in all its bluster and feminist power (“I got way too many people, all my niggas equal” and “I need 60 bad bitches actin' like they single” are oddly progressive lines, at least relative to similar “boss bitch” anthems by contemporaries like Cardi B
) is undermined in intent by an aimless Offset feature that is, undoubtedly, intended to capitalize on the Migos hotstreak (it’s no coincidence that it was released the same week that Migos had 3 songs in the top 100, including a top 10 single in “Motorsport” and a new album out that week). In ethos, he matches the song’s tempo and vibe, but lyrically he’s a mess, falling back on his go-to subjects (money, Percocet, iced out everything
). The song peaked at #101 (or #1 on the “Bubbling Under 100” chart), so it wasn’t exactly the commercial home run the label wanted, and it definitely makes it a worse song. The “Faded Love” collaboration with Future works a bit better, but for some reason Future opts to play the philanderer instead of the open-hearted lover present all throughout HNDRXX
. The production helps to make the two sound
good on the track, but I can’t help but think how much better the track would be if someone more invested in the material like Young Thug
had been featured. “Me So Bad” gets the singular achievement of having one of the best and the worst collab on the album, with Ty Dolla Sign
putting in some impressive harmonizing work that complements both Tinashe’s vocals and the song’s overall vibe. He would have been enough, but (again) the song needed an extra layer of marketability, so they shoehorned in the French Montana
Another fault of the album, one that has consistently afflicted Tinashe’s work, is how awkward the theming is. The interludes are thematically useless: the album doesn’t need padding (at a nimble 38 minutes, it’s perfectly concise) and the extreme stylistic shifts throughout the album kill any consistency or atmosphere the interludes create (“Ain’t Good for Ya” blunts the momentum of “Me So Bad,” and “Go Easy On Me” clumsily breaks up the vibes train that “Stuck With Me” and “Salt” create). They’re likely a holdover from a previous version of Joyride
and should have either been better retrofitted or scrapped entirely. “Go Easy On Me,” in its Nicolas Jaar
-style sensuality, could easily have been a full-length track elsewhere (just take out the spoken word pseudo-political stuff. We’ve talked about this, it didn’t work on Black Water
). “Ain’t Good for Ya” feels like an outline, a sketch sent to the label to prove to them that Tinashe still has it. The intro feels like something that’d be cool in a concert setting but is something that only delays the album’s real start.
is, true to its name, a bit of a wild ride. The production is uniformly contemporary, and at points forward-thinking in a way that makes me wish Tinashe was given more the opportunity to take more risks. I get goosebumps thinking what an album full of experimental tracks like “He Don’t Want It” or “Joyride” would sound like. The vocals are excellent, and the songwriting is more accessible than anything Tinashe’s done previously. There are some obvious label interventions, and the thing is unfortunately inconsistent, having been cobbled together from many sessions across many years. But the highs here are some of the best Tinashe’s ever done, and the lows aren’t any worse than what you’ll hear from some of pop’s more pronounced voices. If you can handle the inconsistencies, Joyride
lives up to the promise of its long gestation and is ultimately worth the ride.