Album Review

‘Aquarius’: Tinashe Leads The Way (Album Review)

Aquarius Tinashe Album Review

RCA

The dawn of a new era is finally upon us.

While “2 On” is most likely the point of entry for most fans of Tinashe in the past year, the LA-bred songstress has been working her way up in the industry for years.

Of course, you should already know that.

“Tired of y’all not doing your research, look me up,” she scoffed on her cover of Drake‘s “Days In The East” earlier this year. Did you?

Didn’t think so.

Tinashe might be bumping on the radio on top of a DJ Mustard beat at the moment, but she got her start several years ago as part of the girl group The Stunners, supplying sugary-sweet pop cuts like “Bubblegum” and opening for Justin Bieber. The troupe’s success was short-lived, and by 2011 they’d already disbanded, leaving Tinashe to go it solo.

From there, she delivered a series of one-offs, dabbling in everything from hip-hop to EDM: A cover of Lil Wayne‘s “How To Love” (which went viral), an original called “Can’t Say No” (which sampled Britney‘s Circus deep cut “Blur”) and a fiery dance floor anthem called “Artificial People” with OFM.

She finally struck gold in early 2012 with the release of her (still) brilliant, homegrown mixtape, In Case We Die, a moody collection of hazy late-night jams and slinky urban bangers. And with each carefully curated mixtape, from Reverie to last year’s Black Water, she’s only continued to refine what has become her signature style.

Tinashe knows good music, which is why her sound is informed by voices past and present — from the sensuality of Janet Jackson to the icy monotone delivery of Cassie to the #phucks-free cockiness of Rihanna to the effortlessly cool, timeless swagger of Aaliyah — but the inspiration comes from a place of appreciation, as opposed to imitation. And to compare Tinashe to others is to do little justice to that the fact that she is, genuinely, an artist in her own right; the result of over three years of evolution.

While major label interference could have easily put an end to Tinashe’s left-of-center R&B leanings, Aquarius stays impressively true to the blueprint: The record is laced with the same spacey sound of her independent releases, colored by ambient noise, twinkling electronica and haunting coos just off in the distance.

“In a world full of darkness I’ll be your midnight sun,” she delicately purrs on the atmospheric opener, a subtle reference to her song “Midnight Sun” off of last year’s Black Water.

This is the sound of an artist in control of her artistic vision.

Even her lead single “2 On,” the infectious ode to getting 2 on in the club (that is, getting ratchet, going dumb, and then going more dumb), proved to be a perfect marriage between the sensual sound of her mixtapes and the mainstream pop leanings of days with The Stunners.

After its debut in January, the song slowly but surely climbed to the top third of the Hot 100 charts by summer — aided by a fiercely choreographed clip — while subtly helping to shape the sound of pop releases to come. (Proof? Have a listen to Fergie‘s new single.)

Although “2 On” isn’t entirely representative of the album’s overall vibe, it’s not the only banger in the bunch: Album closer “Wildfire” appropriately burns it all to the ground with an ominous explosion of tribal-like pounding drums, while the StarGate and Cashmere Cat-produced “All Hands On Deck” — essentially the “Long Way 2 Go” to “2 On”‘s “Me & You” — provides a truly nasty, finger-snapping alarm call for the dance floor…and a great excuse for Tinashe to flaunt her ferocious moves on stage.

Armed with an almighty command (“All hands on deck!”), Tinashe drops and pops all over the dance floor — there’s even some flute action tucked into the powerhouse chorus. (If the ‘flute chorus’ is the new ‘horn chorus’ in pop in 2015, you can peg Tinashe as the trailblazer for the movement.)

Elsewhere, she brings her dreamy sound to new heights, as with standout “Bet,” which features a searing guitar solo by “Everything Is Embarrassing” producer-songwriting legend, Dev Hynes (Blood Orange). Gliding along tight, tripping DJ Dahi-crafted loops, Tinashe makes bold promises to her man — which also happen to double as shade to the haters. “Pay no mind to what the doubters all say/I’mma be around for ever always,” she promises.

Vocally, Tinashe is a dynamic performer: She alternates between girlish coos and confident, full-bodied blasts with ease; her ghostly vibrato always lingering somewhere in the ethos. Nowhere does she exercise that vocal versatility better than her slow-burner ballad “Bated Breath,” which plays like her own spooky version of Rihanna’s “Stay.” “Here’s my confession, saving it special/Hoped it would be you all along!” she powerfully belts for a chill-inducing stretch of time.

When it comes to matters of the heart, Tinashe generally has no patience for the boys that are only just now getting the picture: “This shit is hella scummy, they claiming that they love me ’cause they realize my time is finally coming,” she dismisses on “Cold Sweat.”

But when she does decide to give a guy a try, Tinashe only gets cockier when she’s in between the sheets — which is why Aquarius also happens to be the year’s must-have accessory for the bedroom.

Time and time again, Tinashe cuddles up close and purrs sweetly in our ears. She’s talented, she’s hot and she knows exactly what she wants: She is The Ultimate Bae.

Confidence oozes from this record, from the drippy “Cold Sweat,” to the cocky Mike WiLL Made It-helmed tease of “Thug Cry” (“I can make a thug cry…“), to the sensual seduction of “Feels Like Vegas,” to “How Many Times,” a track that ingeniously interpolates Janet Jackson’s Control anthem, “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun).” Of course, Tinashe takes it just a tiny step further: “How many times can we make love in one night?” she ponders. Even Future, who usually sounds like he’s drowning inside of a vocoder, sounds uncharacteristically alive, working himself into a staccato sweat.

Speaking of Miss Janet, the album’s frequent interludes are no doubt a tribute to the icon, whose extensive body of records almost always includes brief instrumentals, skits and food for thought to break up the record and cool down — the same applies to Tinashe’s frequent intermissions.

But of all the slinky sex jams, Tinashe’s at her most intimate (and most caught up in her feelings) when it comes time for her minimal follow-up single “Pretend” with A$AP Rocky, a slick electro-ballad dedicated to relationship roleplaying and complicated emotions. It’s a make-up/break-up song done differently, sounding ghostly and romantic all at once. “When I’m looking for love, I pretend it’s you…” she echoes above a weightless chorus. If she said it was recorded inside of a space station, no one would try to refute the claim.

Few artists can successfully establish a distinct sound for themselves in an increasingly overcrowded space, and even fewer can breathe new life into a genre while doing so: Tinashe delivers on all fronts, conquering the scene without a hint of self-doubt — a feat made all the more impressive given that this is only her debut. Placing bets on who will go the distance out of this year’s crop of pop stars? Put your money on Tinashe.

Wholly cohesive and finely crafted from start to finish, Aquarius isn’t just one of the year’s best R&B records — it’s one of the year’s best records, period.

But between bumping in the club, bucking in the bedroom and drifting away somewhere out in the stars, Aquarius doesn’t actually sound like it’s breaking ground in any one genre in particular. It just sounds like the future.

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‘Aquarius’ was released on October 7. (iTunes)