Tinashe’s Future Is Bright On Debut ‘Aquarius’
It’s been nearly 15 years since her unexpected death, but beloved songstress Aaliyah’s sound is more relevant than ever. Her hushed vocal style and playful treatment of topics like love and sex have once again become in vogue, thanks mainly to the influence of Toronto Tour De Force Drake, who’s taken these attributes and, combining them with spare production and witty punchlines, become one of the biggest stars on the planet. Predictably, a bevy of rappers and singers are trying to do the same, which, despite the repetition aspect of it, has to make ‘90s R&B fans smile: The songbird everyone adored is making a comeback, albeit not through her own music. Instead, it’s through the work of artists like 21-year-old Tinashe, whose debut album, Aquarius, is made of songs to wrap yourself tight in, invoking thought through peace and playfulness rather than raw emotion. It’s also a record with plenty of spirit, though its energy is not always put to good use.
The times when it succeeds are when Tinashe doesn’t overdo things. Parts of Aquarius were blatantly created for the charts and while some of its pop-minded songs work, others find her operating out of her comfort zone. “Wildfire,” for example, perhaps originally written as another over-the-top arena rap anthem for Eminem and Rihanna, has her belting pure corniness that doesn’t align with her cool persona. And the flimsy “All Hands On Deck” buries her underneath a stew of seemingly every sound DJ Mustard has introduced to the hip-hop world to over the past two years. Catering to the mainstream doesn’t always fail, though, especially when Tinashe sounds like she’s having fun: “2 On,” despite Mustard’s outrageously overused “hey” vocal chant, thumps and makes you want to get down. And the soaring “Feels Like Vegas,” with its repetitive claps and catchy chorus, will have you conjuring a faux “we made it” visual of you and your crew making a slow-mo entrance into the Palazzo.
Then there are the meditative tracks—the types of songs that Tinashe first turned heads with on her moody and sultry string of mixtapes starting with 2012’s In Case We Die. Like fellow pint-sized singer, Jhené Aiko, Tinashe has an unassuming voice that sounds most comfortable on earthy backdrops that soothe rather than simmer. This is apparent on the opener and title track “Aquarius,” which makes your ears feel like they’re full of warm bath water, and on the static breeziness of “Cold Sweat.” These slower-paced moments are also when Tinashe is most willing to reach back for inspiration: “Pretend,” her back-and-forth duet with Harlem’s A$AP Rocky, harks back to the days of Ja Rule and Ashanti sharing cotton candy at a Grease-themed carnival. And the chorus on “Far Side Of The Moon,” perhaps the album’s most heartfelt moment, sounds like something you burnt on a blank disc for your crush back in middle school.
There’s a loose concept to all of this; Tinashe continuously references the power of love, whether it’s on the interlude “Where Is There To Lose”—“In a world so overcome with hate, what is there to lose in love?”—and even in the album’s title, which, in addition to its astrological significance, could also be taken as a nod to the sign’s rich history in soul music. But the theme doesn’t really stick, as it’s broken up by raunchy sex jams like “How Many Times” and cheesy r&b singles (and not in a good way) like “Thug Cry,” where she actually sings the line, “Let me feng shui your shit.” Only when she comes off whole-hearted does the listener truly feel the love—and she doesn’t quite seem ready to give it all yet. Hopefully in due time.—Reed Jackson