6LACK has carved out a niche in Atlanta by drawing from the Soundcloud production aesthetic and combining his rapping ability with a smooth, if at sometimes disaffected, voice.
From the perspective of a music critic, I really want to thank Atlanta-based alt-R&B/hip-hop artist 6LACK (pronounced “Black”) for making the whole who-do-we-compare-an-artist-to-on-their-debut problem a whole lot easier. When he released “Just in Time 4 the Weekend” days before his full-length debut FREE 6LACK, I was expecting, at the very least, a good if not great moody piece a la his previous Soundcloud offerings. But then the “Wicked Games” beat kicked in, and it became quite obvious that 6LACK was sending a message, not unlike the one he sent with the release of “Ex Calling”, a remix of Future’s cult classic from earlier in the year, “Perkys Calling”: these are my influences, but this is how I am different. With the Weeknd’s own album having arrived, it’s well worth exploring FREE 6LACK -- if the debut of a relative newcomer can contend with the run the current king of an R&B style he’s shaped virtually on his own. FREE 6LACK hoists itself well above Beauty Behind the Madness and existing on the same plane as Kiss Land -- an album with a clear handful of great songs buoyed by a consistent aesthetic.
If you know of 6LACK’s work prior to the blog and magazine coverage this album’s rollout has gotten, it’s probably through the song “PRBLMS”, his biggest song to date with a combined ten million streams on Spotify and Soundcloud to date. Telling the tale of a soured relationship and his moving on from it, the eerie bass-heavy production fits predates the perfection of that ideal, Savage Mode, and the lyrics recall the Weeknd’s more self-aware moments from Trilogy. In short, it’s a surefire hit, complete with little hooks nestled into the verses that must make live performances a sing-along throughout. What is most impressive about the album, however, is how this song does not overshadow the rest.
Tracklists tell a lot about the direction of an album -- it’s why on most major pop albums, the major single kicks them off -- and the decision to place “PRBLMS” at third is a savvy one for the album’s narrative. “Never Know” and “Rules” begin FREE 6LACK, and both are some of its most rap-heavy offerings. The former’s production could be mistaken for a hi-hat infused track from Alina Baraz and Galimatias’ Urban Flora EP from last year. “This flow is crazy…," he boasts at one point on the song, and he sounds much more comfortable rapping than the Weeknd and more comfortable singing than Future, which makes for a potent combination. “Rules”, further, features an even better flow at the beginning of the second verse, and showcases his ability to sing-rap with the best of them.
With all the comparisons to two of music’s best working, it becomes obvious to ask if this album holds its weight against the peaks of their catalogs (the Trilogy set of mixtapes, Monster through DS2). The answer is that it does not, dragging in the middle section with the same downtempo productions of the earlier tracks, culminating in the languid ballad “Worst Luck” that lacks the passion of the first few, great songs.
But all is not lost, as the tracklist picks up once again on the two closing tracks, the aforementioned “Ex Calling” and the lengthy “Alone / EA6”. The former is the brightest production on the album, thanks to Southside’s sparse pianos and alternating bass kicks that speed up the pace along with his honest flowing -- “Never been ‘bout that bird talk / To me, that’s that absurd talk / Always been ‘bout the splurge talk.” The real crown jewel on the album, the most impressive song despite the opening barrage of great singles, is the two-part “Alone / EA6” that nods to the Weeknd’s two-parters (“The Party & The After Party”, “XO / The Host”, “Kiss Land”) and also the tradition of ending your debut album with a hell of a long song (“Last Call”). There are multiple spoken portions, militaristic snares, and it ends with a solemn warning -- “Be cautious where you play, there’s darkness in the A” -- that speaks to the gritty realities of the city that is hip-hop’s current undisputed hotbed.
As such, Atlanta has yet again produced an artist well worth discovering. 6LACK has carved out a niche in this crowded city by drawing from the Soundcloud production aesthetic and combining his rapping ability with a smooth, if at sometimes disaffected, voice. In less than a year, R&B has granted us a great album that is absolutely fluorescent (Jeremih’s Late Nights: The Album) and one that is painted entirely in grayscale. This contrast shows the range the genre currently has, and FREE 6LACK is a worthy addition to the pantheon.