A voice that oozes R&B

Fresh take

A voice that oozes R&B

It’s stunning how in recent years mainstream female R&B has effectively been distilled down to one word: Beyoncé.

Yes, there is Rihanna, who has always been more of a pop-minded singer than one inheriting and repackaging soul values, and also Ariana Grande, who is a classic R&B singer hiding out in arena pop. And there are flashes in the pan like Jhene Aiko. But in the same way that the discourse about female rap often begins and ends at Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé has big-footed the conversation: an inimitable superstar and in many ways still a vital, forward-looking one.

All of which makes the small victories of the young singer Tinashe even more impressive. Her single “2 On” (featuring Schoolboy Q) has been the defining R&B song of the summer, and her debut album Aquarius (RCA) is, quite unexpectedly, one of the most idiosyncratic major-label female R&B albums in years, full of slow and heavy breathing.

Keeping it low

Unlike Beyoncé, a maximalist through and through, Tinashe has taken a path charted by Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, Ciara and others: She’s a low-key sensualist with a mild undertow of brooding. She doesn’t sing with bombast, but rather in smoothly spread out phrases somewhere between whisper and lip lick. Aquarius rarely raises its voice, and prefers ooze to slap.

In this way, “2 On” — throbbing and buoyant, full of insouciance — was something of a bait and switch. It’s one of several great forays into R&B by DJ Mustard, who produced the song along with Redwine and DJ Marley Waters. But it paints Tinashe as a party-hard type, a singer who’s primarily interested in motion, even though the slinkiness of her voice clearly works in the other direction.

On the rest of Aquarius, she barely bothers with tempo. The album takes its cues from the exhale of her voice. “In a world full of darkness/ I’ll become your midnight sun,” she sings on the title track, over barely-there biorhythm production (by Ritz Reynolds) that recalls Chicago steppers music and early Aaliyah. “How Many Times” is effectively a rewrite of Jackson’s cool, breathy “Funny How Time Flies.” “Pretend,” the album’s second single, has some movement, but is built on yawning synths and brittle noise effects. There’s nothing upbeat about it.

Tinashe’s unhurried, unflustered style can make it difficult to distinguish between when she’s in the flush of lust, and when she’s bummed out. But it does help her smooth out a few of the clunkier lyrics on this album. Sometimes her restraint has the air of sternness, as on “Bet,” on which she sings with as much force as anywhere here, and which closes out with an icy, slashing guitar solo by Devonté Hynes. Notably, the album is peppered with a series of spacey interludes. The most exciting one is “Indigo Child,” which has an earth-mover beat by Evian Christ.

A struggler

After several songs like this, it’s disorienting to hear “All Hands on Deck,” a high-quality copy of “2 On” produced by Stargate and Cashmere Cat. These higher-energy songs, in the context of the full album, feel like knowing ploys.

But maybe that’s because this gesturally significant album doesn’t wholly come from the fringe. By most metrics, Tinashe, 21, is a classic Hollywood striver. A singer, dancer and actress since she was a child, she’s had a recurring guest role on Two and a Half Men and was part of a girl group called the Stunners, which had marginal success.

After parting ways with the Stunners, she began self-releasing songs — including a lush cover of Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” — and, eventually, whole mixtapes. Her 2013 mixtape, Black Water, showed her to be near the forefront of the moodiness that’s been a key force on the R&B fringes in recent years; see the work of Kelela and SZA, among others.

Varied influences
Tinashe was in good company but, it turns out, not the right company. Her slide into wider acclaim, in fact, has more to do with the templates that have lately been set by men. She may be descended from Aaliyah, yes, but she’s more immediately indebted to Drake and the Weeknd, Toronto’s slow-burn minor-key kings, who have been helping to remake the sound of hip-hop and R&B for the last few years. It’s not a coincidence that “Feels Like Vegas” sounds like a Weeknd outtake, and it’s not a surprise that “2 On” got further gasoline when Drake released his own version of the song.

In the mainstream, Tinashe isn’t alone in these ideas, strictly speaking. The underwhelming Aiko rarely sounds awake when she sings, and has found success that way. And over the last few years, Ciara has tried a version of what Tinashe is now doing. But Ciara has always been more preoccupied with the body than the heart. Her lack of vocal presence guarantees that it is easier to connect with her music physically than emotionally.

That leaves an open lane for Tinashe, then. Factor out Beyoncé and also Rita Ora, who sings the tempestuous hook on Iggy Azalea’s “Black Widow,” and there’s not a single female R&B singer on the most recent Billboard hot R&B/hip-hop songs chart besides Tinashe, who appears both for the extremely durable “2 On” and for guesting on the Kid Ink song “Body Language.” Soon, the singles from Beyoncé’s most recent album will have come and gone. There will be no one to shout Tinashe down.

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