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6LACK - East Atlanta Love Letter Music Album Reviews

With his chilly vocals, minimalist beats, and conditions of the heart, the Atlanta singer finds a groove but has little to say about human relations outside of his own self-important quagmire.

Do you remember the Weeknd? I’m not talking about the neon-painted Starboy seen collecting Grammys from Ariana Grande, jumping on collaborations with Ed Sheeran, whose songs are parodied by Stevie Wonder. I mean the strange figure who emerged in the early sparks of this century with a dazzling set of cold-as-ice mixtapes that desperately depicted post-breakup anxiety, lurid sexual rendezvous, and drug-exacerbated paranoia. This faceless apparition resided in a cracked and debauched world. That Abel Tesfaye parlayed this gnarled form into a legitimate pop star was genuinely shocking. This unlikely success has been a big factor in turning a microgenre like alt-R&B into commercial paydirt, and has allowed an artist like 6LACK—with his chilly vocals, minimalist beats, and conditions of the heart—to ink a deal with Interscope and ride the stainless-steel sounds of songs like “PRBLMS” to double-platinum status.

So where does Ricardo Valentine fit in the alt-R&B canon? The first lines of “Unfair,” the opening track from his second album East Atlanta Love Letter, summarize his ethos: “Hope my mistakes don’t make me less of a man/But lately it feel like them shits really can,” he sings in his downbeat, slightly grainy tone. In 6LACK’s mind, hookups on tour are terrible, painful things. Women are saboteurs of his brittle emotions. He treats every speck of feeling that flickers through his wide-open chest cavity as worthy of a song but lacks the lateral thinking, poetic nuance, or sense of irony to pull this off. There’s only so much of his male feelings you can tolerate when, with all sincerity, 6LACK is unleashing lines like, “Fuck me like you’re about to lose your place to the girl next door,” from “Loaded Gun.” The song goes on to compare, not for the last time on East Atlanta Love Letter, his dick to a lethal weapon, as though an inability to control himself inevitably leads to brutal consequences. There’s no humor in this delivery—either you take 6LACK seriously or you don’t take him at all. Endlessly brooding about his own delicate feelings, the Atlanta star has little to say about human relations outside of his own self-important quagmire.

So we get songs like “Let Her Go,” where 6LACK paints “groupies” (his word) as untrustworthy and a source of conflict between him and his lover. “Disconnect” depicts the blow-by-blow of a break-up, the singer failing to draw listeners in with simplistic prose like, “I think we had enough/Like, I can’t hear you/I’m falling out of love.” The personal “Nonchalant” could have been his version of Drake’s “Say What’s Real”—an early Drizzy confessional that mixed naked emotion with star-making bragaddocio—but the surly verses only vaguely cover his process, post-fame issues, and haters in ways that cut about as deeply as a wooden spoon.

Underpinning 6LACK’s musings are a pristine set of foil-packed beats, all rasping drum machines and ambient synths. By far the most impressive song on East Atlanta Love Letter is the title track. Future is a canonical draft pick for someone trying to make a ATL street record with pop overtones yet this creeping piece of modern soul noir is untypical of Nayvadius’ usual dynamism as he and 6LACK whisper over doomed piano keys and very little else. The simple melody and corny lyrics on closer “Stan,” meanwhile, brings a goofy humility missing from the rest of the project.

The purest pop song is “Switch,” the one track that can pass for uptempo and boasts a hook that sticks. A few more fun moments like this would have helped keep the record moving. Yet even “Switch” comes with a bar like, “If I find out you cheating me, just know that/I’ma kill you and that ho, ain't no going back.” It’s like 6LACK can’t help himself.

At its best and bleakest, alt-R&B can make you feel like Max Payne, beaten and bloodied, functioning only on a heavy supply of painkillers. The Weeknd won making music like this because he went all in, pulling us into his druggy, self-hating world with scintillating sonics, captivating performance, and words that really popped. 6LACK instead traps listeners within the four walls of his drab hotel room, exposing us to his joyless, low-energy meditations that don’t capture relationships or the human experience in any kind of meaningful way.

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