The Missing Ingredient in Tinashe’s ‘The Age of Aquarius’

Tinashe-Aquarius-2014-1500x1500“The Age of Aquarius, the dawn of a new era.”

With The Age of Aquarius, we are literally invited to Tinashe’s world, and it’s one that swings up and down like an R&B see-saw. Between falling in line with the future sound of R&B that’s currently in vogue (amorphous, menacing, and sexual), and mining the past in familiar exercises that nostalgically invoke songbirds like Janet Jackson or Mya, the new era feels a lot like the old one.

Marking the RCA debut of Tinashe (born Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe), The Age of Aquarius has an engaging first half that delves into the Weeknd territory with “Bet” as the best contender for this with a scorching guitar solo and a nasal texture to her voice. In a languid track with grimy atmospherics that come together and come apart like gathering smoke, Tinashe elevates the shadowy instrumental to a provocative height. Her voice is her strongest asset, a secret weapon like the thread a spider uses to spin its web with: transparent and delicate but stronger than steel. On the first song, “Aquarius”, her voice is especially easy on the ears, and although the lyrics repeat themselves, there is a lot of power behind that breath of hers. Likewise, “Cold Sweat” is a dark swirl of sensual unease with jaded lyrics like “This shit is hella scummy. They’re claiming that they love me ’cause they realize that my time is finally coming.”

“2 On”, a club-oriented track that rose to #1 on the Billboard Rhythmic Charts, is one of the more popular hits of this year, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a track of earthy hip hop that puts the spotlight on Tinashe’s voice with infectious lyrics that you can’t help but sing along to: “Get faded, turn up with the big boys. Live fast, die young, that’s my choice. Get money, get money, like an invoice.” Its swagger is effective and immediate, like putting on sunglasses. As it scans like a party song, it is a switch in gears in terms of how to think about Tinashe as an artist. Attracting attention from her 2012 mix-tapes (In Case We Die and Reverie), Tinashe is positioning herself as a singer with depth whose music has contemplative qualities, and “2 On” is a versatile addition to the palette.

Another song that’s less about innovation than renovation is “How Many Times”, a slinky number that samples generously from Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies”. This sort of treacly, passionate R&B treads on well-worn paths, but “How Many Times” never falls into a pastiche of cheesy tropes; rather, it bursts with tenderness.

“Pretend” begins the album’s shift into a mediocre second half with heavy interludes that do not change the fact that they are sandwiched between juvenile material Tinashe would have been used to doing in her work with the defunct girl group, the Stunners. “Feels Like Vegas” and “All Hands on Deck” are not bad songs, but they are not special songs either. “Thug Cry”, however, is just a fish out of water that drags down the album as a whole – more a demo than a song that should be put on to showcase an artist’s best takes.

The ambition and talent that Tinashe has is there, but The Age of Aquarius has a pedestrian feel to it that comes as a bit of a surprise. Tinashe dips her toe in the water but holds herself back, unsure whether to jump in entirely or not. As it stands, she is split between a serious side that’s not so meaningful with throwaway, gritless lyrics about the media and the government, and a youthful side that’s not committed to the party. Tinashe has a great voice, and hopefully she will be able to define or refine her sound for a cohesive picture in her new efforts.