Review: On “Songs for You,” Tinashe’s turbulent career finds steady ground

Independence has given Tinashe new life.

Let me start by saying this: I’m rarely objective when it comes to Tinashe. I’m about as close to a Tinashe stan as one can be without actually being a “stan.” I’ve discussed in the past the role Tinashe played in my early musical journey and how much I have been rooting for her success. It would be silly of me to waste your time and make you, the reader, think that I have anything other than positive things to say about her latest album, Songs for You.

But I’d rather briefly focus on the journey to this moment, which I think is just as important as the moment itself, if not more so. Like a dramatic, coming-of-age movie, Tinashe’s journey to independence has been a story of growth and perseverance, filled with numerous ups and downs, disappointments and triumphs.

Following the relative success of Aquarius, Tinashe found herself floating in an artistic limbo. Naturally, her former label, RCA, prodded her to continue making songs like “2 On,” which had strong elements of mainstream appeal. But this flew in the face of the very obvious “alternative” aesthetic she had curated with her early mixtapes and sought to cultivate further with her solo albums. And so began the height of Tinashe’s stalemate with RCA, in which she battled publicly, for years, to regain creative control from her label — whose vision for her music weren’t even translating into what they presumed would be commercial success.

From the onset it appeared that Tinashe was engaging in desperate measures. She admitted to leaking the single “Party Favors,” which was supposed to be the first single for her anticipated sophomore album Joyride, after the project stalled in late 2015. In the midst of the holdout, she worked on an entirely different project, Nightride, which was a glimpse of what Nashe could create when she didn’t have to compromise her craft. RCA, of course, preferred a more commercially profitable sound, and so Nightride was marketed as a commercial mixtape — and by “marketed” I really mean “barely marketed at all.”

In the meantime, she was promoting her work independently and funding her own visuals. After three years of delay, she finally dropped Joyride — an okay album that still reeked of label manipulation and ultimately paled in comparison to the quality of both of her previous albums.

While Tinashe was in the midst of this battle for creative control, it was clear that the pressures of chart success and label expectations were getting to her, which resulted in her ending up on the wrong side of public opinion. She was labeled a “flop” by many, due to her less-than-stellar music sales. This resulted in a few tasteless rants on social media, which drew even more criticism and jokes. Her misguided comments on colorism drew the ire of social media. She was later scapegoated for the poor ratings of the 2018 Rent musical remake, in which she took part. Her brief relationship with NBA star Ben Simmons, who was seen with Kardashian Klan member Kendall Jenner shortly after, brought around another helping of jokes and memes.

For a while it seemed like Tinashe simply could not catch a single break; I was legitimately concerned for her, not as an artist, but as a person who’s seeming fall from grace had the misfortune of being so public. And when coupled with RCA’s paralyzing grip on her musical career — forcing her to work with artists she didn’t want to work with like Chris Brown, and allegedly shelving an entire album in mid-2018 — it was clear to onlookers that Tinashe was fighting in too many losing battles. Which is why I was absolutely ecstatic when news broke earlier this year that she and RCA had effectively parted ways.

“We initiated for her to be released.” Tinashe’s manager Mike Nazzaro said. “It was a positive split for her. It’s giving her back creative control.”

Seven months later, after remaining relatively silent for most of the year, Tinashe returned in late September with a message of positivity and growth, quelling concerns I may have had about her state of mind or overall well-being. She sounded much more mature and much more at peace with both the art she had been creating and the trajectory of her career. “Music and art are supposed to be these wonderful, beautiful things that bring people joy and happiness,” she said, ”and that’s really why I started making music in the first place.”

This all helps to explain some of the more intangible, inaudible aspects of Tinashe’s first independently released album, which lend as much to the listening experience as the music itself. Songs for You sounds like a mentally-healthier Tinashe. Songs for You sounds like a more emotionally-liberated, soul-baring Tinashe. Songs for You sounds like a Tinashe who now has the freedom to push her own artistic boundaries without looking over her shoulder, which resulted in some new and exciting forays into hip-house, disco, and synth funk on songs like “Die a Little Bit,” “Save Room For Us,” and “Perfect Crime.” Songs for You sounds like a Tinashe that doesn’t feel pressure to meet specific chart expectations.

Much like Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, Songs for You is an experience that’s inextricably tied to the circumstances in which it was created. And after what felt like hopeless wandering in a desert, Tinashe seems to have found a mental, spiritual, and artistic oasis.

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