The Harlem singer Tim Vocals is an artist who thrives on contradiction. First, and perhaps most important, there’s the contradiction between your ego and the fact that you are listening to someone who voluntarily chose the name “Tim Vocals.” It’s just a fascinatingly awful name, and it’s already sent me down a 10-minute mental spider-hole, wondering how my career might’ve gone differently if I’d adapted “Tom Music Reviews” as a pen name. (He also decided to name his new mixtape Timtaptions, and I advise you to not think about that too hard.) But there’s also the contradiction between Vocals’ actual vocals, a silky and sweet R&B tenor, and what he sings about, which is mostly goon shit. When he sings about sex, his point of view is straight-up schemer-dirtbag; he’s either trying to sneak out on his girl or clearly informing his girl that his lifestyle could well land him in prison. And he also sings about what might land him in prison; he’s the first R&B singer I’ve ever heard to get into the nuts-and-bolts of the drug trade, talking the same specific grimy shit as Pusha T or Young Jeezy. And he’s doing it, quite often, over songs you might recognize, swiping the instrumental tracks and melodies from big pop hits so he can turn them into something darker and harder, a practice that got FADER’s Felipe Delerme to call him “Weed Al Yankovic” in a profile. There’s a real pleasure in hearing all those contradictions pile up, in hearing a voice that angelic singing such decidedly non-angelic things over songs that suddenly sound so much more innocent in the reflection of Vocals’ versions.
Timtations is Vocals’ first mixtape since coming home after a prison stint, and either he’s singing over brand-new original tracks half the time, or I’m just not paying enough attention to recent R&B. (This is true; I’m not. I live in a city with no decent R&B station, but mostly I’m just slacking.) And there are a few concerted attempts on the mixtape to move beyond the gutter stuff that built Vocals’ reputation, into more standard R&B-singer fare. “Love Hate Relate” is a straight-up love song; “Stadium” is one of those finally-I-made-it songs. Those songs are fine; there’s nothing wrong with them. Vocals is a malleable singer with a real warmth to his voice, and he pours his voice all over those songs. But there are a million other singers working that same standard style, and at least a few of them are considerably better than Vocals at it. It’s pleasant hearing Vocals letting his voice melt into the background, but that’s all it is. I understand why Vocals would want to prove that he can do this stuff, but the tape really comes to live when Vocals dials directly into what he does best.
Everything Vocals does best is on display in the two minutes and 35 seconds of his version of Lorde’s “Royals.” The song is, on one level, a straight-up parody, with Vocals adapting every single melodic flourish — both in the lead vocal and in his own multitracked back-ups — of Lorde’s original, and changing the lyrics so they’re about moving cocaine. (“Call me pusherman Vooooocals,” etc.) But there’s no smirk in Vocals’ voice; he clearly loves this song, hears the beauty in it, and he’s determined to use it for his own ends. It’s a great vocal performance too, way more technically advanced than what Lorde was doing, and those massed multitracked backing, um, vocals are just beautiful in a pillowy choir-of-angels sort of way. The new lyrics, too, are concrete and observational in a way that not much drug-rap in, and in a way that no tough-guy R&B is. This is tactile stuff, Vocals singing about crumpled-up dollar bills and doing math as quickly as possible in his head. He sings about being happy to accept fiends’ pocketfuls of change as payment — “I don’t care; I can use that for my laundry” — and it’s the sort of minute detail that makes the whole scenario come to life. Then, as the song comes to a close, the backing track of the Lorde original drops out and a busy human beatbox takes its place, reinforcing the idea that this is a guy recording on his own, maybe with the help of some friends, and throwing the results online; it’s not something being test-marketed before the major deal is announced.
Those same virtues — Royals’ almost-humble homespun vocal grace, his sharp storytelling eye, his willingness to sing about street-level skullduggery — creep into the best moments on Timtations. It’s there when Vocals and the rapper Da$h call themselves “male thots” over Fabolous and Jeremih’s “Thim Slick” beat. It’s there when Vocals finds a way to make Ty Dolla $ign’s “Paranoid” even more ratchet by making it about the sort of thoughts that might run through your brain in a real-life situation: “I saw my girl’s best friend on the buuuuuus, and we sat next to each other / I know my bitch gonna beat me uuuuuup, if I try to get her drawers.” These are small, minute pleasures, and with only a half-hour’s worth of this stuff, Timtations isn’t exactly a world-altering masterpiece. But those pleasures are real, and driving around with Timtations blasting out of open windows last night was one of the most satisfying listening experiences I’ve had in a minute.
Download Timtations here.