The Week In Pop

6LACK Wishes He Was A Rapper, But As An R&B Singer He’s On The Right Track

“I’m an R&B nigga with a hip-hop core.” That’s 6LACK, the Atlanta singer born Ricardo Valentine, on “Scripture,” a track from East Atlanta Love Letter, the #3 album in America this week. That title and 6LACK’s stage name both reference Zone 6, the crime-riddled section of East Atlanta where he grew up. If you’re among the many wondering why an R&B singer with a genre-perfect name like Ricardo Valentine would instead choose a nondescript moniker like BLACK and render it in unpronounceable leetspeek, understand that 6LACK (pronounced “black,” not “six-lack” or “slack”) is not that kind of R&B singer. He doesn’t fit the old loverman archetype exemplified by figures with even more nondescript names like Joe, Lloyd, and Mario. He is a singer who carries himself like a rapper.

This phenomenon is not new by any means. This past summer, Pitchfork looked back on Bell Biv Devoe’s 1990 smash Poison, concluding that its edgy approach to R&B “set the stage for three decades of singers who want to talk, dress, and act like rappers.” Many others have followed in their wake: R. Kelly, The-Dream, Trey Songz, the Weeknd, Jeremih. Before he embraced tough-guy shtick, Drake approached the blurry divide from the other side — a rapper who presented himself like an R&B singer — and spawned a legion of clones in the process. In a world where genre lines are constantly collapsing, the walls between longtime radio bedfellows hip-hop and R&B have been especially porous. At this point you almost expect every singer to rap and every rapper to sing. An R&B stud who actually lived up the name Ricardo Valentine would be an aberration.

So 6LACK is a poster boy for his moment, the latest torchbearer in a longstanding lineage. He’s a gifted singer, capable of smooth ruminations on heartbreak, and he stays in that pocket more often than you’d expect for someone so clearly in love with rap music. He does indulge in some of today’s ever-popular sing-speak from time to time, as on the Frank Ocean-indebted “Switch” and “Nonchalant,” and even drops some bars here and there. But largely he presents as a true-blue R&B singer, albeit one haunted by the ghosts that inform so much of today’s gangster rap.

As such, East Atlanta Love Letter is a shadowy slow creep steeped in the sound and imagery of trap music. Sometimes 6LACK resembles Donnell Jones brooding in the darkest corners of Drake’s Take Care, a modern update on the old-school crooner. The album opens this way, with 6LACK confessing, “Hope my mistakes don’t make me less of a man/ But lately it feel like them shits really can,” eventually shooting upward into Auto-Tuned falsetto: “I don’t wanna fight or be at war/ With you, but you/ Gotta want the same things.” This version of 6LACK returns on “Disconnect,” cooing, “No, I don’t wanna piss you off/ I ain’t tryna make you yell/ Now why you wanna kick me out of my natural element?” It’s that old R&B staple, the we-can-work-it-out ballad, updated for the 2010s — especially on “Sorry,” when the millennial passive-aggression kicks in: “Without you I ain’t shit, but no pressure/ Guess I gotta learn my lesson.”

On “Loaded Gun,” the beat bangs harder, and 6LACK takes a more aggressive tack:

I got women calling my phone like I owe them somethin’
It’s kinda my fault, I guess I showed them somethin’
No shit, I treat my dick like it’s a loaded gun
Point that shit away, these hoes gon’ blow or come
No disrespect when I say, if you love me better fuck me
Like you ’bout to lose your place to the girl next door
And hell no, I don’t want her, I’m just giving you incentive
Inspiration before I go on these sold out tours

In such moments he verges on the nihilism of Future at his bleakest. Accordingly, Future is one of several Southern rap titans to show up on East Atlanta Love Letter. On the title track, 6LACK’s fellow Zone 6 native shows up emoting about luxury watches and “Coming from the bottom of the mud/ Concrete filled up with blood” over 808s and sad piano ripples; meanwhile, in pillowy soft delivery, 6LACK compares his words to an AK-47. Elsewhere J. Cole avoids any clunkers on the warm and appealing “Pretty Little Fears,” and Offset appears on “Balenciaga Challenge,” which, given its title, had better not be an attempt to manufacture a viral social media craze. On that one you might mistake 6LACK for the lyrically choppy but sonically gorgeous rap curator Travis Scott, a guy who has carved out an important place in rap without being very good at rapping.

6LACK would probably be pretty happy about that. Throughout East Atlanta Love Letter, he almost sounds guilty about deploying his gifts for melancholy digital soul rather than pursuing a career as an MC. On “Thugger’s Interlude,” a song straight out of Drake’s sad-eyed deep-cut playbook, he professes his allegiance to Young Thug and laments, “Lately I been bumping trap music/ Don’t wanna listen if I can’t dab to it/ ‘Cause all that other shit makes me think about all the things I don’t wanna think about/ But I’m a hypocrite, ’cause here I am with another slow song.” “Nonchalant” includes a parade of references to rappers, from Meek Mill’s Dreams And Nightmares, Lil Wayne’s Rebirth, and Big Shaq’s “Man’s Not Hot.” And at the end of the rap-oriented “Scripture,” he explains, “We just had to do that, if I don’t rap anywhere on this, people are gon’ hate me,” after asserting, “I wrote this in a hotel the size of a closet/ Just to show you that I could do it/ Just to show you that it ain’t much to it.”

He doesn’t need to worry. One of the best aspects of East Atlanta Love Letter is that it doesn’t pigeonhole 6LACK into any one subgenre. I was reluctant to engage with his music at first because Apple gave him such an intense promotional push out of nowhere that I suspected he’d be some superficial trend-humper. To an extent, that was an accurate read; 2016 debut FREE 6LACK definitely marked him as a follower rather than a leader, and a less generous reading of East Atlanta Love Letter would come to the same conclusion. But both albums are also musically rich and sharply produced. There is more to like about them than to dislike. The new one is framed as a tribute to his hometown experience in all its complexity, and its tracklist reflects that complexity without losing the sense that there’s a defining personality at its core.

And anyhow, 6LACK is at his best when veering off-trend by modernizing the sort of tender R&B balladry few artists are attempting these days. I wouldn’t want him to narrow his focus too much, but to me, this is his smartest path forward and a lane to call his own. Closing track “Stan,” for instance, is the sort of glassy slow-drift that used to line the second half of Drake albums before he became engrossed with hard-nosed posturing and assorted global rhythms — think “The Real Her” or “Too Much.” Maybe it’s corny when 6LACK proclaims, “Baby I’ma love you like a stan.” But maybe it’s a beautiful expression of romantic devotion, the kind you never hear in pop music anymore — the kind you’d expect from a guy named Ricardo Valentine.

Party music, the sort 6LACK says he turns to when he needs to feel good, is one way to cope with life’s myriad traumas. But so is love music, music that luxuriates in the beauty of human connection. 6LACK is really good at those kinds of songs, whether he wants to admit it or not. By all means, he should keep documenting the full scope of his experience — guns, drugs, pride, desolation, whatever — but I hope he gives extra attention to this side of his persona. If he could bring love back into the pop mainstream, he’d go from an industry plant to the roots of a new movement.

CHART WATCH

We have a new #1 song in America! Super Bowl halftime act Maroon 5 claim their fourth Hot 100 topper with “Girls Like You,” dethroning Drake after 10 weeks on top with “In My Feelings.” The song doubles as featured guest Cardi B’s second #1 of the year (following “I Like It”) and third #1 overall (also including last year’s breakout “Bodak Yellow”). Maroon 5’s other three #1s were “Makes Me Wonder” in 2007, “Moves Like Jagger” with Christina Aguilera in 2011, and “One More Night” in 2012. According to Billboard, “Girls Like You” is the first non-rap song to hit #1 in 34 weeks, though Cardi does rap on it, so.

After “In My Feelings” at #2 comes the debut of Eminem’s Machine Gun Kelly dis track “Killshot” at #3, his 20th top-10 hit. Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” rises back to #4. Post Malone’s “Better Now” is at #5. Humorously, “I Like It” and “I Love It” are back to back at #6 and #7 — the Cardi B/Bad Bunny/J Balvin track and the Kanye West/Lil Pump single, respectively. At #8 is 6ix9ine, Nicki Minaj, and Murda Beatz’s “Fefe,” followed by Travis Scott (and Drake)’s “Sicko Mode” at #9. And reaching a new #10 peak is 5 Seconds Of Summer’s “Youngblood,” which becomes the group’s first top-10 hit.

Over on the Billboard 200, Carrie Underwood has her fourth #1 album with Cry Pretty. Its 266,000 equivalent album units amount to the biggest one-week total for an album by a woman this year. A whopping 251,000 of those were traditional album sales. By adding Cry Pretty to a list that also includes Blown Away (2012), Play On (2009), and Carnival Ride (2007), she becomes the first woman to take four country albums to #1, surpassing Faith Hill, Linda Ronstadt, and Taylor Swift. (Swift has five #1 albums, but two of them were pop releases that didn’t chart on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.) Cry Pretty also had the biggest debut for a country album since Luke Bryan’s Kill The Lights launched with 345,000 units in August 2015.

Eminem’s Kamikaze remains at #2, then comes the #3 debut of 6LACK’s East Atlanta Love Letter on 77,000 units but only 20,000 in sales. Drake, Travis Scott, Post Malone, Ariana Grande, Paul McCartney, Nicki Minaj, and Juice WRLD comprise the rest of the top 10.

POP FIVE

Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper – “Shallow”
This is the song from the A Star Is Born trailer. You know the one — the bombastic Meat-Loaf-esque rocker where Lady Gaga’s voice comes thundering in with that gigantic wordless howl and you’re like, “Yes. A star is born.” It’s gonna feel so right when Lady Gaga has another #1 single, and so weird when Bradley Cooper gets his first.

Lauv – “There’s No Way” (Feat. Julia Michaels)
Lauv is the guy who sings that insidiously catchy “I like me better when I’m with you” song. Julia Michaels is the ace songwriter whose presence on pop singles is consistently a ray of sunshine. So on this straitlaced soft-rocker, does he bring her down, or does she elevate him? Yes.

Elle King – “Naturally Pretty Girls”
It’s wild to hear someone in the pop ecosystem sounding like a vaguely rootsy Echo Park fake-indie band from 2012.

Dinah Jane – “Bottled Up” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign & Marc E. Bassy)
Dinah Jane is the latest member of Fifth Harmony to embark on a solo career. She’s doing it with an assist from Ty Dolla $ign, who played a big role in 5H’s biggest hit, “Work From Home,” and who dates 5H’s Lauren Jauregui. (Which raises the question: Is estranged former 5H member Camila Cabello the one person serial collaborator Ty Dolla $ign will never collaborate with?) At first “Bottled Up” struck me as pleasant but bland. On my second pass through, it’s a lot more euphoric than I initially thought, but I’m skeptical that it’ll be a hit on the level of Normani’s “Love Lies.”

Jessie Reyez – “Dear Yessie”
I love it when an R&B singer takes a stab at rapping and just snaps.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • A former drummer filed a restraining order against Beyoncé, alleging “extreme witchcraft.” [Newsweek]
  • In other Beyoncé news, she and Jay-Z surprised an Arizona teen with a $100k college scholarship at an OTR II show. [ABC15]
  • Lady Gaga shared a preview of A Star Is Born ballad “Is That Alright?” [Twitter]
  • J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival, which was cancelled because of Hurricane Florence, has been rescheduled for 4/6/19. [Dreamville]
  • “Boo’d Up” singer Ella Mai will release her debut album on 10/12. [Twitter]
  • Rihanna has been appointed “Ambassador Extraordinary And Plenipotentiary” to Barbados. [Barbados Today]
  • Lil Yachty will star in MTV’s How High 2. [Variety]
  • Panic! At The Disco dismissed their touring guitarist after allegations of inappropriate behavior with minors surfaced on Twitter. [Anti Music]
  • The clothing company Sick Boy is suing the Chainsmokers for selling shirts that say “Sick Boy” on them. [The Blast]
  • Liam Payne and French Montana released a video for “First Time.” [YouTube]
  • Zedd did a remix of Shawn Mendes’ “Lost In Japan.” [YouTube]
  • Avril Lavigne performed her new single on Jimmy Kimmel. [YouTube]
  • Nicki Minaj fulfilled her promise to give former Cosby actor Geoffrey Owens $25k. (He donated it to charity.) [TMZ]

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