Out now on Radio Killa/ Def Jam
In the last couple of years, millions of words have been written about the deconstruction of R&B. The common narrative reads that the antiquated, oft-problematic genre needed a re-think, a shot in the arm. Artists like the Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and Miguel were crowned as the men for the job — the forward-thinking minds ready to drag R&B into the 21st century (read: make traditionally black music palatable to white audiences). Before we knew it, the three of them were playing triumphant sets at Coachella, the Ed Sullivan Show of today. The verdict was in: mainstream millennials demanded R&B.
The great secret, however, is the most progressive R&B coming out continues to be produced by artists who are generally viewed as “traditional.” Whether it was The-Dream’s stunning 1977 (2011), Jeremih’s Late Nights with Jeremih (2012), or TeeFlii’s recent AnnieRUO’TAY 2, much of the best work of the last five years has come from outside the lauded PBR&B(ARF) scene. Another one of those artists who will not be coming to a Coachella near you is 21 year-old August Alsina.
The New Orleanian’s debut has been mostly skipped over by the pop blogosphere, which is hilarious considering they all had plenty to say about the Weeknd’s limp, Kiss Land . The truth is, Testimony, is an outstanding first statement, highlighting much of what makes him such a compelling artist. First and foremost, he has the chops: an effortless, graceful tenor that glides up to a falsetto without a hint of strain. Even better, he uses those million-dollar vocal chords to weave affecting stories.
The record is called Testimony for a reason. From cathartic leadoff track “Testify” to gospel-tinged closer “Benediction,” Alsina is hell-bent on telling his story — from his difficult childhood to his triumphant rise and everything in between. Through everything, he never loses his buoyant spirit and dogged desire to succeed, perhaps best typified by the lyric “Heard my brother got gunned down and it hurt me to my heart. / So I kept grindin’, kept pushin’, he told me to go far.”
That survivor’s spirit permeates every minute of the record. Whether he is paying tribute to his troubled mother (“Mama”) or giving props to strippers (the outstanding “Get Ya’ Money”), Alsina has a knack for seeing things as they really are and paying tribute to people who are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. Even the album’s most romantic moment, the exquisite “Kissin’ On My Tattoos,” details a flawed couple, not brave enough to commit to each other but terrified that the other will move on.
The song’s ambiguity is a microcosm of what makes Testimony so strong and its author so interesting. In today’s world, artists tend to deliver easily-digestible, unvarying brands: the Weeknd’s dead-eyed lothario, Miguel’s sensitive bro. However, Alsina prefers to live in the moral grey area of the real world, where nothing is all one way or the other. And there’s nothing more progressive than that.