As I wrote in my previous article, 21-year-old LA native Tinashe is the hottest young thang jumpin’ out of the R&B gate today. But does her new album, Aquarius, live up to the hype? Yes, it does—but it’s kind of a bait-and-switch. The girl draws us in with her bouncy fly-girl “Mya”-like persona, but she keeps us still with her moody, mysterious, pioneering vision. She’s not who I thought she would be.
Aquarius debuts a fully-formed artist with anindie style, lyrical content and swagga chiseled through three mixtapes, In Case We Do, Reverie and Black Water, (all of which Tinashe recorded in her bedroom). Her music has been favorably compared to the works of Janet Jackson and Aaliyah.
Tinashe serves as the star, main songwriter and one of the micro-managing executive producers on an album chock-full of top-man producers like DJ Mustard and Stargate. Together with them, Tinashe holds her own to craft a piece that is bold, brassy, sultry, sleek, and, most of all, boundary pushing. Tinashe’s bright sugary falsetto mixed with spoken word/raps, diverse content, intelligent lyrics, dark underground style and constant musical changes within songs sets her apart from just any other R&B diva. She is a stylistic innovator and may be the leader of the so-called “indie R&B” movement. Clear and strong on tracks, Tinashe does not depend on guest rappers (Schoolboy Q, ASAP Rocky and Future) to “make” the song; instead, their sexually explicit raps are just assists to her jump shots. Lacing tracks with her own raps and space-agey interludes, Tinashe invites the listener into a surreal but intimate experience.
A few stand-outs:
Like most of the songs, “Bet” is moody, suspenseful and elevated above your typical R&B fare. Tinashe combines the expert vocal tones of a Kelly Rowland with the otherworldliness of a Solange into her own clearly defined lane. The innovative cacophony of sounds blends the ethereal with hip-hop trill with digitalization. It’s like Enya dropped onto an R&B track. (Love the dope guitar solo at the end!)
The title track leads us in with Tinashe’s “dawn of a new era”. Being her astrological sign, “Aquarius” is also is a metaphorical throwback to the 1960’s psychedelic hit, “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” by 5th Dimension. Tinashe is not at Erykah Badu level yet, but she is definitely leading her music upward into the astrological plane.
“Bated Breath” is a smoky torch ballad. In an album full of piano-driven songs, this one stands out because of Tinashe’s raw lingering notes which make you feel like you are drinking her in. You hope for love with her.
“Cold Sweat” gives us insight into industry pressure. It starts out with Tinashe singing, “I like being alone” and goes on to talk about “fresh meat,” “blood on the floor” and “yes men”. Again, not your usual R&B fare.
I liked “Far Side Of The Moon” for its strong Kanye-like bass beat production and catchy clanking sounds. Her lyrical struggle of the heart is more within typical R&B content, but homegirl still manages to flip it as if we are listening to her internal monologue.
The chart-topping “2 On” obviously led the pack as one of the few fast-tempo club cuts. With that grimy dance beat, those naughty lyrics about getting drunk and high at the same time, and that vulgar Schoolboy Q rap, it’s easy to see why this radio smash stayed at number one for four weeks on the Billboard Rhythmic Charts. But honestly, it’s kind of a one-off. The real soul of Tinashe lies in her ballads which make up the majority of her album.
Speaking of vulgarity, Tinashe is definitely not the shy type when it comes to sexual expression. She declares she can “make a thug cry” (here’s that Mya-esque swagger!) on “Thug Cry,” for example. But even with the lush harmonies and her sweet high register, songs like this (and a few others) come off a bit bland. On the other hand, the many interludes on the album, like the piano driven “Deep In The Night (Interlude)” and the rainy “The Storm (Outro)” add this fly-on-the-wall insight into Tinashe’s magical inner process.
Like her jacket cover, which features half of her face covered in shadow, Tinashe maintains a consistent shadowed moodiness through her remarkable debut. Aquarius is quite beautiful. This artist can definitely play with the big boys (and girls).