Maybe the album title isn’t such a bad thing after all; when you know what you’re in store for, can you really be disappointed?
So let’s get this out of the way right now: Goin’ Thru the Motions is as inauspicious an album title as you can get, almost immediately dampening expectations to a you’ll-get-what-you-expect level. And on PnB Rock’s 2016 collaborative release with fellow croon-rapper Fetty Wap, Money, Hoes & Flows, the title sold its content without any hesitation. But on his debut studio album GTTM, the artist born Rakim Allen exhibits a bit of progression lyrically, some adventurous choices sonically, but mostly stays true to the album’s title.
The first thing that is noticeable about the tracklist, especially relative to other major label R&B-adjacent albums, is how unvaried the guest list is; this, too, does not work in his favor. Of the five featured artists, all are croon-rappers in their own right, ranging from one of the most successful -- Wiz Khalifa -- to one of the best -- Quavo. Perennially underrated Ty Dolla $ign, up-next A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and rising Atlantan YFN Lucci round out the grouping, and each holds their own. The first three tracks run through the features except for an extra Boogie and Ty’s, and the track sequencing makes perfect sense: the features are some of the brightest spots on the whole album, a nod to the lane PnB is looking to break into, but also a reminder of how far he has to go.
What is the smartest sequencing move, however, is the song placed fourth, the first solo effort on GTTM, “Selfish.” It’s the album’s best song, and within its first few seconds, it’s understood why this was chosen to be the lead single. Cinematic synths extend a fuzzy landscape that evolves into standard trap drum fare in the hook, but the little flourishes like nearly hidden bells only heard in the right headphone make the song downright pretty. And, unlike Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em” near the end of the virtually flawless 2015 effort Late Nights: The Album, this long-gestating single is still different, yes, but fits well into the aesthetic of the work. This, however, works both as a boon and detraction, because of how outsized the difference in quality is between “Selfish”’s love-trap anthem and the rest of the album that veers between love anthems, trap anthems, and love-trap anthems.
Also of concern is the simulacra issue: that PnB sounds like the similarly metallic Travis Scott, who, in turn, sounds like a whole lot of people melted into one. The ad-libs aren’t the same, the lyrical content doesn’t always match up, but the intonations are very, very Travis Scott-y. And for a Scott, those traits work; he is a mood setter first and foremost, a party promoter and not the one everybody comes to see. When Rock deviates from this, like on the up-tempo “Range Rover”, he finds his own voice well, but for the most part, there is little to differentiate him from his contemporaries.
Ultimately, this is the issue plaguing GTTM and the more traditional R&B being released right now. While artists like Jeremih and The-Dream are crafting surefire pop hits with an R&B flavor, a distinct experimentality exists for all of their releases. Conventional R&B that gets the lion share of radio play is disappointingly trite and lacks an energy that the experimental side of the genre seems to have tapped into. Not that PnB can’t string together a worthy brag or two -- “Yeah, you got a million followers / Me, I got a million dollars” -- but that for the most part, lyrical tropes are all that are being trafficked in. So maybe the album title isn’t such a bad thing after all; when you know what you’re in store for, can you really be disappointed?