Once upon a time, people hated Cassie. In 2006, she was a 19-year-old model-turned-singer whose big single, “Me & U,” may or may not have been about blowjobs. After a couple of notoriously bad TV performances of the song, some joker started an online petition saying that Diddy should drop her from Bad Boy, and it got thousands of signatures. I’m not exactly sure what the people signing that petition wanted. Cassie was clearly never going to be Mary J. Blige; her voice is a thin, conversation coo, one that she never attempted to push into gospel histrionics or Mariah-esque runs. She was never an R&B singer anyway; her music tended toward hovering-spacecraft dance-pop. “Me & U” stands as a particularly stark and excellent example of the form, a perfectly crafted wisp of a pop song that’s aged better than just about any of the other singles coming out at that moment. And it wasn’t a fluke; the self-titled album that “Me & U” called home had three or four songs that were nearly as sublime. Cassie’s still on Bad Boy, but those chumps with the petition got their way in another sense; since that album, Cassie hasn’t released a full-length. She’s released a ton of singles since then, and earlier this year, some fan cobbled together more than 60 unreleased tracks and soundtrack cuts and non-starter singles, compiling them into an unauthorized triple-mixtape. That thing is full of gold, and Cassie herself has said that its existence helped push her to finish RockaByeBaby, her first full-length in seven years. It was worth the wait. We might not get a better mixtape, in any genre, this year.
For her entire career, Cassie has been turning the things that detractors hated about her — her thin voice, her sexed-up delivery — into assets. She’s maybe our purest post-Aaliyah singer, sinuously sliding her whispery voice through spare, echoing tracks like it always belonged there. There’s a druggy, deadpan flirtatiousness in her voice that reminds me of nobody so much as Nancy & Lee-era Nancy Sinatra. That’s always been there, but RockaByeBaby is the moment she turns those things confrontational, when she becomes an absolute badass. The tape’s cover is Cassie’s face, blowing smoke from a gold-plated pistol. Throughout, snatches of dialogue from New Jack City bubble to the surface, like they’ve been underneath it the whole time and they’re just fighting for moments to push their way through. These are rapper moves, not pop-singer moves. And before Rick Ross thunders his way onto “Numb,” Cassie gives what amounts to her mission statement: “I make music to numb your brain.” She’s not wrong; every track on RockaByeBaby hits with layer upon layer of woozy, disorienting force.
The mixtape that RockaByeBaby immediately made me think of was the Weeknd’s debut House Of Balloons; it’s got that same sinister, debauched chill to it. Cassie’s got that same predatory, almost threatening sexuality in her voice, but she sounds in control in ways that Abel Tesfaye rarely does. And Tesfaye’s collaborators liked to sample drifting, diffuse indie bands like Beach House. Cassie doesn’t play that. RockaByeBaby has familiar tracks, but they’re hard, minimal, haunted rap beats: 2 Chainz’ “Got One,” Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. City.” Frequent Chief Keef collaborator Young Chop turns up to produce “Turn Up,” and it’s an early indicator that the monolithic menace of his sound can support more than just Chicago children threatening to kill you, the same way that Ciara’s “Goodies” once showed that Lil Jon had more to him than fight music. And when Cassie sings alongside the slick, assured R&B lothario Jeremih on “Sound Of Love,” she dominates the track even if she’s the less technically sound singer. And though the tape’s songs waft pleasantly into the background, there’s a hard-eyed strut in Cassie’s voice even when she’s professing love and vulnerability; she sounds like she’s turning Jeremih into jelly.
RockaByeBaby is one of those mixtapes that absolutely could’ve been proper albums if someone had decided to release them to a paying public. It’s got the sort of hard, polished mastering job that more mixtapes should have, and a ton of big-name rappers come through to pay respects, delivering the sorts of verses that rappers tend not to use for throwaway projects. Fabolous might be better than any rapper in history at the drop-in R&B guest verse, and he’s absolutely unflappable on “I Love It.” For the first time in a while, Wiz Khalifa sounds totally engaged and present on “Paradise”; apparently, it just took a song like this to knock him off autopilot. On “Turn Up,” Meek Mill is pure adrenaline; I love the way he yips “Murder scene! Murder scene!” And on “Do My Dance,” Too Short contributes a verse of such surpassingly assholistic panache that I subliminally memorized it almost immediately: “Turn your bitch into some work and make her squiiiirt / If you knew what she was doing, you’d be huuuuurt.” Cassie, then, is sharing space with some huge personalities, all of them bringing their A-game. But the tape still sounds like it belongs entirely to her, like it’s being beamed directly from a world of her creation. If those rappers all stepped their game up just to impress her, you can see why.
Download RockaByeBaby for free at DatPiff.