Freedom Sounds Good On Tinashe

Freedom Sounds Good On Tinashe

Labels, man. It’s not like they’re completely useless, but damn do they get in the way sometimes. There are so many cautionary tales about promising musical artists whose careers have been irreparably harmed by bumbling record companies. Given the resources, exposure, and presumed expertise a label can provide, you can understand why a musician would link up with one. It can feel like ascending to the next level, a necessary step on the way toward the career you’ve always dreamed of. Often, though, artists end up in limbo, at the whims of executives who don’t understand them nearly as well as the artists understand themselves.

Such was the case with Tinashe. The child actor turned singer, dancer, and producer was clearly on to something with the string of mixtapes that earned her significant buzz in the early 2010s, full-lengths that put a stylish R&B spin on the era’s prevailing cloud-rap sound. At first, a deal with RCA Records seemed to be reaping benefits when “2 On” became a huge radio hit and debut album Aquarius cemented her status as a star. But the disastrous half-decade she spent following it up almost destroyed her career. From the moment in late 2015 when Tinashe leaked her brilliantly tripped-out Young Thug collab “Party Favors” and RCA quickly released a generic club track called “Player” with Chris Brown instead, it became clear artist and label were not on the same page. What followed was an era fraught with flop singles and seemingly endless behind-the-scenes drama. And when Tinashe finally did release Joyride in 2018, it was kind of a mess.

So it made perfect sense when she and RCA parted ways in early 2019 — even more so when her first independent album Songs For You dropped later that year. Songs For You brought back the free-flowing spirit of Tinashe’s early mixtapes, but with the polish and versatility of a major statement album. It affirmed that Tinashe could thrive beyond the aesthetic that initially helped her blow up, but despite the stylistic range — at the time I wrote that it included “low-key house beats, crystalline trap, throbbing proto-dubstep, roller rink disco, dreamy pop balladry, snarling minimalist hip-hop, and more” — it hung together as a unified work. Last year’s low-stakes EP Comfort & Joy was one of the least corny, most enjoyable Christmas releases in recent memory. Now she’s back with 333, a second indie LP on which she continues to thrive on her own terms.

Over the past year Tinashe has been telling interviewers about her distaste for the concept of genre, which she dismisses as restrictive and rooted in racial segregation. There’s something to her critique. Other Black artists such as Tyler, The Creator have similarly wondered why their music can’t just be received as pop; meanwhile a white star like Ariana Grande is considered a pop star by default despite steering her music in an explicitly R&B direction. Clearly there is some value in classification as a way of discussing the styles, trends, and movements that cohere around particular musical characteristics. But Tinashe was not wrong when she told Zane Lowe last week that 333‘s title track — a shapeshifting deconstructed banger influenced by James Blake — “doesn’t fit a particular genre at all… it’s just a sonic experience.”

So it goes throughout 333. It’s not exactly a radically experimental LP, but Tinashe spends most of it sliding across an eclectic landscape of sounds, centered on fluttery impressionistic R&B but just as likely to veer into neon arena anthems (the Stargate-produced “The Chase”), undulating synth-pop (“Undo (Back To My Heart)” with Wax Motif), breathless dance-adjacent hip-hop (the Buddy collab “Pasadena”), or darkly spacious slow jams (the Kaash Paige duet “Angels”). Whereas the similarly diverse Joyride seemed awkwardly stitched together, a result of too many cooks in the kitchen, Tinashe’s post-RCA albums feel coherent no matter how much she experiments because they’re so clearly an outgrowth of her own perspective. She’s the one calling the shots, and she knows damn well what she’s doing.

From the start, that exploratory impulse makes for an entertaining journey. After a brief yet lavish intro called “Let Go” that could be interpreted as a callback to her pre-independent days — “Waiting on somebody else to save me/ I hurt myself with foolish pride” — 333 gets right down to business with “I Can See The Future,” a breathy trap-infused R&B track accented by well-placed symphonic flourishes and vocal samples. “I can see the future,” she sings with understated confidence. “And it looks like you and I.” Up next is “X,” a dream duet with Jeremih, another blog-beloved R&B star who has sometimes seemed lost in label purgatory. Musically it’s a brisk digital wonderland with assists from Jeremih’s fellow Chicagoans Hitmaka and THEY’s Drew Love, matching a pogo-ing keyboard loop out of a fast-paced club track with a slow-rocking tempo befitting the sexualized lyrics. The ensuing interlude “Shy Guy” pulls the opposite trick, setting floaty clouds of keyboard against a busily skittering minimal drum ‘n’ bass backdrop.

“Shy Guy” flows directly into “Bouncin’,” wisely selected as one of 333‘s advance singles, which finds her sending dirty photos of her lover to the cloud against a dreamy yet mechanistic synth backdrop that sounds like the inside of the internet. It’s one of many songs where Tinashe sounds like she’s genuinely having fun again. Similarly exultant — and similarly well chosen as a single — is the contagiously upbeat, rhythmically complex “Pasadena.” It’s unlike any previous Tinashe song, but she sounds completely at home on Oliver Malcolm’s frenetic, “Hey Ya”-sampling beat. “Feelin’ free, feelin’ right,” she sings, sounding completely liberated. “It’s a vibe, feelin’ right.”

Kelia Anne MacCluskey

CHART WATCH

Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 this week with 238,000 equivalent album units and 153,000 in sales. That sales figure is the third best of the year following big weeks for two Taylor Swift releases: the opening week for Fearless (Taylor’s Version) (179,000) and the week evermore was released on vinyl (192,000). According to Billboard, vinyl sales of 73,000 alone would have been enough to top the chart this week — it’s the second biggest sales week (and debut week) for a vinyl album since the advent of Soundscan in 1991, surpassed only by evermore‘s 102,000. Happier Than Ever is Eilish’s second #1 album following her 2019 debut WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Two more teenagers are at #2 (the Kid Laroi) and #3 (Olivia Rodrigo). Next up at #4 is Prince’s posthumous Welcome 2 America, debuting with 55,000 units including 50,000 in sales. It’s Prince’s 20th top-10 album. After Doja Cat at #5 and Morgan Wallen at #6 comes a #7 debut for Isaiah Rashad’s The House Is Burning via 41,000 units and only 5,000 in sales. It’s his first top-10 LP. Former chart-toppers from Lil Baby and Lil Durk (#8), Dua Lipa (#9), and Polo G (#10) round out the top 10.

Over on the Hot 100, the BTS Army has finally relented, and someone else gets to have the #1 song for the first time in 10 weeks. That someone else is the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber, whose “Stay” rises to the top of the chart, becoming the first #1 for Laroi and the eighth for Bieber, tying Drake for most among Canadians. (The Weeknd has six, while Bryan Adams and Céline Dion each have four.) According to Billboard, Laroi is the first Australian male solo artist to top the Hot 100 since Rick Springfield did it with “Jessie’s Girl” in 1981 and the first Australian period since Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” did it in 2016.

The rest of the top 10 in sequence: Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u,” Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating,” BTS’ “Butter,” Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits,” Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More,” Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s “Industry Baby,” Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” Olivia Rodrigo’s “deja vu,” and the Weeknd and Ariana Grande’s “Save Your Tears.”

POP FIVE

The Weeknd – “Take My Breath”
I didn’t think Abel Tesfaye could take his sound further into pop than “Blinding Lights” without sacrificing his essential Weeknd-ness, but he continues to surprise me. If he’s about to drop a whole album of this kind of dance-floor jams on us, consider me intrigued.

Nelly – “High Horse” (Feat. Breland & Blanco Brown)
Every decade, Nelly returns with a new country-rap song. “Over And Over,” “Cruise,” and now “High Horse.” This one feels like it would be fun at a wedding.

Adam Levine – “Good Mood”
Maroon 5’s singer giving me New Radicals vibes on a single from a children’s movie soundtrack. And you know what? I don’t mind it.

Victoria Monét – “Coastin'”
That bass, though! Those horns, though!

blackbear – “@ My Worst”
What a dire trend this whole thing is, whatever you want to call this thing.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Rihanna is officially a billionaire, and the wealthiest female musician in the world, according to Forbes. [Forbes]
  • Jessie J apologized to Nicki Minaj for saying in an interview that the rapper asked to be on “Bang Bang.” (Minaj had responded,”I didn’t hear the song & ask 2get on it. The label asked me2get on it & paid me.”) [Instagram]
  • Cardi B features on Lizzo’s new single, “Rumors,” out Friday. [TikTok]
  • Here’s the trailer for Cinderella starring Camila Cabello. [YouTube]
  • Taylor Swift narrated an NBC Olympics promo about Simone Biles. [Twitter]
  • Here’s Saweetie’s new McDonald’s commercial. [YouTube]
  • Shawn Mendes’ new single “Summer Of Love,” featuring Tainy, is out 8/20. He does know summer is almost over, right? [Instagram]
  • Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga shared a video for “I Get A Kick Out Of You.” [YouTube]
  • Dominic Fike and Lil Meech have been cast in Euphoria season 2. [Deadline]
  • Blackpink are getting an island in Animal Crossing. [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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