Tink Shows Off Her Undeniable Versatility at NYC Showcase: Live Review

Many young artists discover one thing they're good at it and stick to it. This is the safe play: stay with it and build a following.

Tink, a Chicago-born rapper and singer who performed at SOB's in Downtown Manhattan last night as part of Hot 97's "Who's Next?" concert, doesn't play safe. Boss Up, her blustery 2013 mixtape, drew on the tough strains of her hometown's hip-hop. In contrast, Winter's Diary 2, a 2014 project, served mostly as a showcase for her singing voice.

This year, Tink continues to expand in different directions simultaneously. "Room 302," a song that appeared on Future Brown's self-titled album, combined two sides of Tink into one dynamo, equal parts swagger and seduction. While "Room 302" peers towards the future, other tracks from this year looked back to cast Tink as the heir to '90s greats. "Ratchet Commandments" nods to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ten Crack Commandments," while "Million" uses Aaliyah's "One In A Million" as both a sample source and jumping-off point.

Aaliyah's influence looms larger in Tink's narrative ever since she connected with Timbaland, the legendary producer who oversaw Aaliyah's second and third albums. Portraying Tink as Aaliyah's successor is, of course, savvy marketing at a time when everyone -- from major hip-hop stars like Drake to indie rock singers like Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis -- claims the singer as a formative influence. The Aaliyah connection is not only good promotion though. For '90s R&B fans, the comparison is tantalizing, since both One In A Million and Aaliyah exist in a special class, simultaneously cutting-edge and hugely popular.

But the Aaliyah association serves Timbaland -- many steps removed from the days when he defined the avant edge of pop -- more than it helps Tink. She was doing just fine before he came along. And she can do things that Aaliyah can't, like rap with speed and ferocity. When singing, Tink's tone tends to be a little more nasal than Aaliyah's, a little more child-like. She incorporates rapping cadences into her vocal, resulting in a hybrid style that marks her as a product of 2015.

At SOB's (where at least one fan was holding up a large cardboard Tink cutout), she was only given the chance to perform a few songs, so selection was important. She played "Treat Me Like Somebody," which gussies up a '90s R&B trope -- a gentle acoustic guitar riff, the kind of thing that underpinned early Usher tracks -- with a light dusting of trap. The hook expresses a basic human right: "I just want somebody, to treat me like somebody." But a twinge of uncertainty slips into the song as Tink wonders, "Is that too much?"

A similar concern animates "Don't Tell Nobody," a bleeping, rattling track about a relationship that's stuck in a constant cycle. Break up, make up, repeat: "You creepin', I'm leavin', you call me, I pick up/ I hang up, you text me 'let's link up'/ Then I just say f--- it, then we end up f---ing/ And you start up something I said I was done with." This song gave Tink a chance to move between vehement rapping and an easy, slightly-wounded croon.

The set ended with "Ratchet Commandments," which lays out a code of behavior -- "Thou shalt not slip up on a heathen/ Always keep it cool, never let him know you need him" -- and takes some spirited shots at people who spend too much time on Instagram. But then the DJ played the hook to "One In A Million," giving Aaliyah the last word, even though Tink showed she's more than able to speak for herself.

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