If you don’t live in a cave, you may have heard that Kendrick Lamar‘s new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, leaked early. In the middle of the Internet frenzy surrounding that news, you might have missed the arrival of R&B singer Tinashe‘s excellent new mixtape, Amethyst.
Funnily enough, this sort of thing keeps happening to Tinashe. To some listeners, she appeared to come out of nowhere last year. Beyonce had just taken the world by storm with her surprise album, which came out in December 2013; the way people wrote about her, she was the only game in town — certainly the only female R&B singer getting any attention. Then Tinashe dropped “2 On” — sleek, hedonistic, unstoppable — in January 2014, and the conversation changed.
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Of course, these things rarely happen overnight — Tinashe honed her sound over the course of several mixtapes, notably Black Water, released just a few months before her first hit. Mixtapes can serve as places where artists can experiment without major-label pressure, exploring many directions simultaneously. Not for Tinashe: Black Water was less than 35 minutes long, cohesive and concise. Her major-label debut, Aquarius, both refined and narrowed her aesthetic — dispensing with, for example, the ’90s hip-hop soul feel of Black Water‘s “Just a Taste.” But Aquarius also stretched and pulled the singer’s sound almost to a breaking point, as the album sprawled over 18 tracks and 55 minutes. This made sense considering her favored mode — treacly, slow-burning — but it also diluted her impact.
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The singer’s new mixtape, Amethyst, is a step in the opposite direction: At just seven songs, it’s a highly concentrated dosage of Tinashe’s semi-molten style, further proof that “2 On” was a smart bait-and-switch, a fleet dance track from a singer who preferred deliberate motion. (Sam Smith effectively used the same ploy, breaking in the States with “Latch” and then releasing ballad after ballad.) Only “Worth It” pushes the tempo — that song is produced by the Bay Area’s Iamsu!, who effectively works from the same playbook as “2 On” producer DJ Mustard.
Tinashe is fluent in several decades of R&B and has an easy way of translating that past language into the present. “Looking 4 It” borrows the hook from Jaheim‘s 2001 classic “Looking for Love” and merges it with Tinashe’s unhurried saunter. In a rare moment of levity, she sings dismissively about a suitor — “you think you’re 2Pac, acting like a poet” — and then responds to herself in an amusingly high-pitched voice, like Prince‘s alter-ego Camille or a member of Alvin & the Chipmunks: “You ain’t 2Pac, bitch!” On “Just the Way I Like You,” Tinashe works in steamy Janet Jackson mode. But this isn’t a plush, sensual number — the instrumentation behind her has a different agenda, as a synth vibrates with sustained, buzz-saw intensity.
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“Dreams Are Real,” Amethyst‘s lead track, is as vibrant as anything on Aquarius — here you’ll find all the tools of contemporary R&B production functioning in seamless harmony. A piano sketches out a scrap of melody with just a few notes; the bass seems both weary of its own heaviness and worlds apart from the track’s light snaps and airy drums. The shifting, gummy billows of Tinashe’s vocals hold everything together. She channels the heady rush of the most seductive post-disco R&B, then adeptly steals Drake‘s cadence from the beginning of his recently-released “Company,” dragging out syllables in the middle but biting the line off at the end. As the song beings to fade out, listeners hear a triumphant battle-cry: “the future is mine!” Who would doubt it?