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Review: 6LACK – East Atlanta Love Letter

The East Atlanta crooner avoids the dreaded "Sophomore Slump"

Ricardo Valentine, better known by his alias 6LACK (pronounced “BLACK”), began his first body of work with the lines “I know a lot of people, but I don’t fuck with a lot.” It was an abrasive, moody start to an album that captured what sounded like a lot of pent-up anxiety. And understandably so: after signing with Florida rapper/pop star Flo Rida’s record label International Music Group in 2011, he spent several years in artistic limbo, writing and producing artless songs for the label while seeing little to no monetary compensation for his work and having his artistic creativity stifled. 6LACK was eventually able to leave the label in 2014.

It’s with this angst that he crafted the appropriately-titled 2016 debut, Free 6LACK. It was a dark, hypnotic tale of distrust, deceit, infidelity, emotional/artistic captivity, and heartbreak that garnered him attention around the music world and earned him a Grammy nomination.

6LACK stood out in a saturated genre with a unique combination of super-nocturnal production — the type of sound that is best enjoyed when the sky is at its absolute darkest — and very relatable, surprisingly captivating lyrics. Having what he describes as a “hip-hop core” allows him to lyricize in a way many other contemporary R&B artists can’t, which I think only adds to some of his appeal.

But the rising consumption rates of the music industry and the recent “Sophomore Slumps” of other rising stars, such as fellow alt-R&B crooner Bryson Tiller, mounted pressure against Valentine to create another body of work that either continued or advanced his sound in a positive direction. It’s a fact he is well aware of on the song “Nonchalant,” a lead single he dropped in August, and in which he raps, “I’m somewhere between humble and hell nah / These niggas drop their second album then fell off.”

Needless to say, on his follow-up album, East Atlanta Love Letter, 6LACK maintains his stride.

Some of the things I appreciated about EALL are subtle in nature. On Free 6LACK, listeners could sort of tell, in his lyrics, in his voice, and based on the label situation he had just emerged from, that he was struggling with an ever-present frustration. When he sang or rapped about his numerous failed relationships, he frequently came across as vexed and confused; he was either sick and tired of being nagged and harangued, or he questioned why his significant other put up with his bullshit. In either case, he rarely hesitated to pull the breakup card. But it seems that, on EALL, his tone has shifted a little bit: on “Let Her Go” he pauses, and contemplates the repercussions his actions. “If I let her go / Will I regret it? Will I forget it?”

One of the key differences between his debut and East Atlanta Love Letter, as he explained in an interview with Complex, is that, despite the fact that 6LACK’s relationship woes have neither disappeared nor even necessarily improved, his approach is more mature and he is much more committed to working through his problems.

Recent parenthood serves as one of 6LACK’s biggest motivations to make this change. On his previous album, he was about to approach fatherhood (“I got a baby on the way / I think about it every day”). Now, the birth of his daughter, who appears with him on East Atlanta Love Letter‘s artwork, seems to have given him a sense of clarity and purpose, which he highlights on the song “Loaded Gun” when he sings “I got one baby, that’s one lady imma answer to / She be the reason I’m righting my wrongs and shit / Love is the reason I’m writing these songs and shit.” As he also explains in the above-mentioned Complex interview, some of those “wrongs” include the communication failures of his past — in the countless failed relationships he highlighted on Free 6LACK, including, presumably, his relationship with his baby’s mother. “Since having my daughter, a lot of the things that I was in the gray area about before, I don’t have space to be in anymore,” Valentine said in the same interview. “I have to figure it out for her sake.”

The result is that 6LACK sounds a little less confrontational and a bit more sentimental. “I don’t wanna piss you off / I ain’t tryna make you yell,” he croons emotionally on the chorus of the song “Disconnect.” Over deep, sustained piano chords, he sings “I’m tryna work it out / But we got a disconnect” with enough heart to put listeners in their feelings instantly. In his unhappiness, his voice and sound are much more heartbreaking and moving.

There are many honest, vulnerable moments, like his duo with Future on the title track, the aforementioned “Disconnect,” and the song “Sorry,” in which Valentine solemnly admits that has a hard time apologizing for his mistakes, but attempts to rectify them through his songwriting. And on Pretty Little Fears, he teams up with Dreamville founder J. Cole to rap and sing about some of the emotional and sexual comforts of what seems to be happier, healthier relationships — a rare moment of contentment in the East Atlanta crooner’s short discography.

6LACK closes out the album with the song “Stan,” a reference to the culture of excessive celebrity worship; Valentine states to his new lover that is the kind of love he wants between them. Here he seems to have reached stability, like he has finally found a love worth fully immersing in. For a guy we know has come a long way and toiled through a roller coaster of emotions, it’s a satisfying, heartfelt finish.

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