The truth is, I was hugely skeptical of the album at first, having become recently disillusioned with the newly-dubbed alternative R&B that seemed to become more and more reactionary to mainstream R&B than revolutionary (as it once was); a genre that leaned heavily on atmosphere and aesthetic instead of substance; on production over songwriting; with lyrics about sex as depicted in pornography instead of actual sex.
It doesn’t help that the opening three tracks each have glaring problems: “Aquarius” losing its sexuality to briefly tackle larger matters extremely clumsily (“Government! The media! … Blind! Blind!”); Blood Orange’s guitar solo outro on “Bet” better served as a separate interlude and “Cold Sweat” entering a pure-falsetto and zero-tune bridge. Immediately after, poor track sequencing puts three flavor-of-the-month rappers back-to-back-to-back, and all of them clog up their respective tracks (ScHoolboy Q offers what might be the worst verse I’ve heard all year, I still don’t see what’s so good about this Future guy other than his speech impediment, and A$AP Rocky remains A$AP Rocky). And then you have to deal with the useless “Nightfall” and “What Is There To Lose” that goes “What is truth, if truth is subjective?”, and I wish Yeezus co-producer Evian Christ was given more than 90 seconds to do his thing on “Indigo Child.”
But they’re all minor quibbles. In fact, I never want skip straight to “2 On” as soon as I hear ScHoolboy say “UH! Pull your panties down from under you” (like no shit, were you going to pull them over her? Out of her?) because it’s worth it just to hear Tinashe’s interpolation of Sean Paul’s “We Be Burnin’” in the song’s conclusion, which felt like a novelty at first but in time, has reminded me of how good the melody of the original song is and how much better it sounds when it’s handled by someone who isn’t fucking Sean Paul. (Although ScHoolboy makes it really fucking hard for me: following that up with “Beat that pussy up”, the grammatical atrocity in “Drunk than a bitch”, the grotesqueness of “Pussy on my pinky ring” (because people fingerfuck with pinkies, right?), another grammatical atrocity in “Baby me do it in the backseat” and the filler of “Money money money weed fashion”; “Fuck rapping” indeed). And though the “Hey”’s in the chorus bother me (when will T.I.’s reign end?), the production completely surprised me because DJ Mustard (a.k.a. MUSSAH ON THE BEAT, HOE) is best known for making beats out of melodies that never resolves themselves and looping them and calling it a song. But there’s a ton of stuff happening here, like brief bursts of strings, alarm-like synths crescendoing during the first half of the chorus and the drum figure that caps it off. And Tinashe sells it, making getting turnt up sound like one of the most appealing things for someone who just wants everything to get turnt down a notch. (Just a notch, Lil Jon.)
People who want more jams like “2 On” might walk away disappointed, with only “All Hands on Deck” to satisfy them, but people who stick around will get some of the finest production to grace any R&B record of 2014; it’s equal parts powerful and atmospheric. And “All Hands on Deck” isn’t as obvious as you’d think it to be: the choruses hit the club dancing, but the verse’s lyrics go “Kiss the old me goodbye, she’s dead and gone” while the bridge brings in flutes. Elsewhere, R&B heavyweight production team Stargate take an Eastern-flavored string sound, transposes it on a synth and lets it carry “Feels Like Vegas”; “Far Side of the Moon”’s drum programming takes a page out of Sampha’s drum programming book; “Bated Breath”’s piano-led outro is perfect for lonely nighttime walks – I haven’t heard something like that since The ArchAndroid’s “Say You’ll Go” four years ago.
But the best part about the production is, it never overpowers the main attraction – Tinashe. The way she exhales one word at a time in “Aquarius”’s hook is the definition of sultry; the phrasing of the staccato notes of “Cold Sweat”’s hook is the song’s saving grace; her backing vocals throughout “How Many Times”’ chorus might be even catchier than the melody itself; her assertion throughout “Thug Cry” is commendable. But the best example of her as a singer is on “Pretend,” the most emotional song of the bunch. Against a hazy synth backdrop, Tinashe sings heartbreaking lines like “Let’s pretend we never met / A good excuse to play forget / Let’s pretend you never lied / So I can give it up all night”; I dare you to find more subtlety or soul that’s sung as melodically in the other (somehow) more critically acclaimed alt-R&B album of the year.