Tinashe is, to my mind, a thought experiment: “What if Christina Milian knew what she was doing?” Of course, the same could be said of the many song-dance hybrids who have had Janet Jackson or Aaliyah-like career aspirations, to disappointing results. For too long now the genre has been deprived of that female artist who sings, dances, and entertains with well-produced albums full of interludes, breathy yet enthralling vocals about love, sex, and party anthems.
If only going by “2 On,” the infectious yet unimaginative track produced by DJ Mustard, hitmaker of the moment, we might easily dismiss Tinashe as a one-hit wonder; at the very least, another so-so singer adept at the eight-count but not quite sustaining your attention. She is, however, far more interesting vocally, sonically, and subjectively than her Top 40 hit single might suggest, and her debut album, Aquarius, makes that apparent.
For those who have long followed the teen actress turned girl group singer and now solo act, Aquarius is a well-executed progression from the sounds we heard on Tinashe’s previous mixtapes, In Case We Die, Reverie, and Black Water. Like those collections, Aquarius is an amalgamation of various moods and influences. Her emotions are just as rabid as her libido, and she works them all out through her love of R&B, hip-hop, and alternative music, and list of influences, which include Michael Jackson, Janet, Sade, and Christina Aguilera.
Yes, in terms of production and vibe, Tinashe is heavily influenced by Drake and the Weeknd’s love of all things moody, but it’s Janet Jackson and Sade who helped her understand how to coo and seduce. While Tinashe did indeed work with Sade band member Stuart Matthewman, here we find even louder echoes of Damita Jo.
Tinashe is heavily influenced by Drake and the Weeknd’s love of all things moody, but it’s Janet Jackson and Sade who helped her understand how to coo and seduce.
The debt to Janet is most apparent. There are five interludes plus an outro that all hark to Janet’s albums, but the loudest proclamation is “How Many Times,” her duet with Future that samples the seventh and final single from the youngest Jackson’s breakout album, Control. Tinashe’s contemporary take on the pop juggernaut is far more sexually straightforward—a good thing—and Future’s addition is yet another win in the duet column for the Atlanta-based-rapper. Future cannot sing, and many of his raps are discernible, but he always manages to convey connection with the artist he shares a space with, not an easy feat considering how useless so many rap/sung collaborations are nowadays.
That connection is missing between Tinashe and A$AP Rocky on “Pretend,” the second single from Aquarius. Many of the Tinashe’s songs feel rather bare, but they work nonetheless, only not so much here; “Perhaps” conveys a vulnerability that’s better achieved on tracks like “Far Side of the Moon” and “Thug Cry.”
A more worthy follow-up to “2 On” and a better introduction to the “real Tinashe” might’ve been “Bet,” featuring Devonté Hynes or “Feels Like Vegas.” There’s a very alluring quality to Tinashe’s voice, and it’s evident whenever she’s singing, or in some cases, simply whispering feverishly about her sexual prowess and overall appeal. “Cold Sweat” is a hauntingly sexy song that is a graduation from similar songs in her catalog like “Ecstasy.”
Tinashe, who produced most of her pre-major label debut tracks and has production credits on Aquarius, worked with a wide range of collaborators, including T-Minus, Boi-1da, Clams Casino, Fisticuffs, Best Kept Secret, Ritz Reynolds, Dev Hynes, Detail, Mike WiLL Made It. They undoubtedly assisted Tinashe in perfecting her sound, but the fact that an album with so many tracks and so many cooks in the kitchen can maintain cohesiveness is a testament to Tinashe’s talent and vision. “2 On” was the hit Tinashe needed for attention, but Aquarius is the album that shows she deserves to be around for years to come.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.