In 2021, Houston college student Monaleo spit a set of blistering verses over a throwback chopped n skrewed beat. “Beating Down Yo Block” established the 20-year-old as a promising, yet unproven, up-and-comer in the Hip Hop world. The qualities that made it a hit are present but not the star of the show on her debut Where The Flowers Don’t Die. It’s admirable that Monaleo stretched to show off her vocal chops and wide ranging music taste, but the resulting blend of Houston skrew music, pop, and country lacks the cohesion and charm that characterizes her best work.
In an interview with Nylon last month, Monaleo explained how she would handle easing fans into her more diverse sound. “I was literally just a girl who was writing music at home and I went to the studio … and it just so happened that I recorded a song that people like,” she said. But that isn’t the only facet of Monaleo, and she wanted to show that off on this record.
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Where The Flowers Don’t Die accomplishes this, but it’s a different story when it comes to the varying quality of music. From the outset, Monaleo tinkers with expectations on “Sober Mind,” an anthemic track that mashes together R&B vocals and a self-reflective spoken word verse. It’s a jarring entry point and the transition from its meditative vibe to “Beating Down Yo Block” is even more so. But that transitions into “Ass Kickin,” which is boosted by similarly brash punchlines and an irreverent chorus depicting the scene of its namesake. It’s the best stretch of the album.
But the moments when Monaleo is leaning into those strengths are outnumbered by the creative leaps she takes throughout the album. It has echoes of last year, when SZA flexed every artistic muscle in SOS, seamlessly integrating R&B with Hip Hop, pop, and punk. Unfortunately, while it seems Monaleo has similar instincts when it comes to artistic risk taking, it doesn’t appear her decision making has reached a level where she could successfully tie all those elements together.
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Pop country anthem “Miss Understood” feels out of place, as do the horn-infused “Sauvage (Interlude)” and “Cologne Song.” They aren’t conceptually aligned with “Beating Down Yo Block” and Monaleo’s singing – while pleasing – isn’t enough of a lift for it not to matter. What made SOS so compelling was the combination of SZA’s vocal talent, artistic discernment, and precise execution. Where The Flowers Don’t Die ultimately feels like a thematically hollow tribute in comparison.
At her best, Monaleo is unloading torrents of verse about her roots, ambitions, and love life. All of those things are present on “Ridgemont Baby,” which is the clear highlight on the back end of the album. If Monaleo had worked to craft a clear concept album around those elements, the finished product might have been as compelling as “Beating Down Yo Block” was in 2021. Ambition should be commended, but she has further to climb if she wants to execute. But reaching for new heights in music is much better than playing it safe, and the promising 22-year-old has plenty of time to work out the kinks.