First things first, Tinashe is 21 years old and was “discovered” by vocalist Vitamin C an entire pop music generation ago and it shows. Her seven years spent grooming herself were well worth it, as her “debut” album Aquarius shows nuance and seasoning well beyond her years. At a time in pop music where talent is long and budgets are short, an industry-established (three acclaimed mixtapes in two years) singer/songwriter like Tinashe still requires superlative talent and top-notch production to reach pop stardom. Thus, Aquarius’ excellence is more than a case of blending a gentle falsetto with the rumble of bass-y, low-end productions. It see’s Tinashe’s star power blossom into full-fledged brilliance, making Aquarius one of 2014’s most noteworthy R&B releases.
The hit-making gang is literally all here. Rappers ScHoolBoy Q (love-struck chart-topping pop hit “2 On”), A$AP Rocky (lovelorn progressive soul single “Pretend”) and Future (mainstream, “Funny How Time Flies” rendering as well as Jasper and Sean Cameron production on “How Many Times”) lend vocals tailor made for Tinashe to crash the Chris Brown/ Trey Songz/ August Alsina Top 40 party. The ubiquitous DJ Mustard produces the aforementioned “2 On,” carrying on the tradition of using the bass-line from Tyga’s strip club anthem “Rack City” to give it that something extra. Producer, Detail, cranks out a boom-bap, break-beat stunner of a single in “Pretend,” the bass line’s muted quality allowing the sinuous, warping single-chord melody to stand in its opposition. Of course, rounding out the list of A-list producers is Mike WILL Made-It, who blends piano chords into a snapping; kick drum and bass combination for the anthemic love song “Thug Cry.”
Drake’s OVO-affiliated producer Boi-1da smashes a home run with Tinashe on “Cold Sweat,” a song that serves as an ode to the fear and loathing of being an artist in Los Angeles. But, the true winner on Aquarius could be Tinashe’s songwriting. Her voice is not a multi-octave power instrument; so instead, she balances the album between her lilting falsetto and swagged out attempts at left-coast rhyming. While neither plays tremendously well, the combined appearance of both on the album gives her some conceptual breathing room that, while populated with the likes of fellow songstresses Jhene Aiko and even F.K.A. Twigs, she somehow makes all her own.
She’s a DIY, artistic everywoman, words chosen as much for rhyme as for impact. And with producer Blood Orange amongst the previously mentioned in tow, she rides the tracks, comfortable with cooing hooks and tip-toeing through the open spaces on the multi-layered bottom end to fashion a cohesive production out of a gaggle of influences. “Feels Like Vegas” may be her best vocal performance on the album, though, as she uses sing-song raps over blush worthy, aughts-like production to describe the gravitational pull of the one she’s deemed worthy.
As debuts go, Aquarius showcases not only Tinashe’s advanced skill as a songwriter, but also her well-earned confidence as a vocalist, instinctively knowing how to use her voice to its greatest effect. Overall, it succeeds on almost every level, creating a space for Tinashe to establish herself as go-to vocalist for pop producers looking to succeed as rhythm-and-blues craftsman, too. Of the crew of L.A.-based “young veteran” female singers, Tinashe and Jhene Aiko are obvious standouts. But whereas Aiko chooses to move away from the Hip Hop heavy elements that defined her music in the past in order to wear her heart on her sleeve, Tinashe allows her project to rise above the strain of heartbreak to create a simultaneously empowered and cohesive debut.