In an interview in January, singer-songwriter/producer/rapper Rico Love identified a turning point in his career: a trio of ballads he wrote several years ago for Melanie Fiona (“4 AM”), Mary J. Blige (“Mr. Wrong”), and Trey Songz (“Heart Attack”). These tracks were all about the corrosive, all-consuming properties of love, full of devastating lines like, “I never knew love would hurt this f—ing bad/ the worse pain that I ever had.” Importantly, “all of those songs were about me,” Love told Billboard. “I had never done that before… Songs just started being honest to me, and I felt like maybe something is happening here.”
It makes sense, then, that the theme of those songs would serve as the basis for Love’s debut full-length, Turn The Lights On — an album which tracks the euphoric highs and the brutal, needy lows of a relationship. Plenty of pop uses heartbreak as a starting point, but few genres capture the nature of affection’s passion and intensity like R&B. These projects come from all corners of the form. In 2014, for example, Tinashe‘s Aquarius, FKA Twigs‘ LP1, and Toni Braxton & Babyface‘s Love, Marriage & Divorce each contained focused explorations of desire and its consequences aimed at different audiences.
Love has a single theme, but he’s of two minds about how he wants Turn The Lights On to sound. He’s torn between his allegiance to the cutting edge of modern pop — the man has been on the frontlines of radio-ready R&B since he landed a song on Usher‘s Confessions — and an interest in the classic sounds of ’70s and ’80s soul. The album opens with the breezy, sweetly-strummed guitars of “TTLO,” which also incorporates a wobbly, post-dubstep synth and a trap beat, demonstrating Love’s affinity with all the tools of modern pop production.
There are pleasing destabilizing touches in some of these uber-contemporary songs — like “Ride,” which changes tone drastically half-way through — but they’re in danger of bleeding into a diffuse stream of top 40 signifiers. “Happy Birthday” sounds like a Nelly outtake that Love attempted to resuscitate, unsuccessfully, with DJ Mustard-like shouts. “The Proposal” feels like it came out of a challenge to make a beat out of a whistle — a concept more fun on paper than in practice. Though Love got his start as a rapper, when he slips from crooner to MC — which he tends to do 2/3 of the way through a song — he raps predictably, usually in the same tone with the same flow.
Surprisingly for a man who helped mold the sound of today’s pop, the songs that sound determinedly out of step with current trends are the most compelling. “The Affair,” a somber piano ballad, moves into “Days Go By,” a shiny piece of adult contemporary funk that slickly captures the endless monotony of being by yourself when you’d rather be with somebody else. The guitar laps softly but relentlessly against the beat, mimicking the brutal sameness that collapses all Love’s experiences into one: loneliness.
Perhaps it’s his memory of this agony that causes Love to counsel a potential partner to stay away on “Run From Me,” a vigorous, lovely interpolation of Philadelphia soul that marks the album’s high point. There are full band textures here in the form of punchy brass, seductive strings, and flowery electric keyboards, and Love piles these on top of each other in a jumbled rush. “I know you’re wondering, who hurt you in the past?” he sings. “Who told you all those lies? Who hurt you with goodbye?” His answer shows he’s back in the head-space that changed his trajectory several years ago: “No sense in pointing the finger, because obviously nothing’s going to change/ The fact that remains, I’m still left here with this pain.”