Trigga warning: As strong as his new album Trigga is, it does little to solve the fundamental problem with the recorded output of our man Trey Songz. He remains a nimble vocalist with strong range, one who acquits R&B’s formal clichés with precision. But his versatility comes at the expense of personality: No matter how well-executed the music is, at its center is anonymity.
But first, the good: Trigga, at its best, suggests contemporary R&B — that popular, populist strain of radio-friendly soul music holed up in R&B’s diminished center — is still a vital framework for creative songwriting, even if it’s struggled in the face of EDM’s musical encroachment. With Usher past his peak, Chris Brown disgraced and playing the heel, and Lloyd — where is Lloyd? — Trey has had the middle lane to himself since 2009. Trigga is a consistent, reliably lewd pop R&B record that still manages to take emotional lives of its R&B tropes seriously.
The ideas he cultivates here aren’t new. He’s lecherous one minute — “Dead Wrong” with Ty Dolla $ign, celebrates women who are just that. The next minute, he’s wracked with guilty anguish — “SmartPhones” finds the singer caught by a pocket dial: “Smart phones, dumb shit.” Opener “Cake,” with seething synthesizers and its lewd double-entendre, isn’t far afield from The-Dream or recent R. Kelly. Lead single “Na Na” is an indisputable, if unimaginative hit; it drove a Fugees chorus and a DJ Mustard beat up the charts. “Late Night” with Juicy J is a flip of Three 6 Mafia’s classic “Late Nite Tip,” and while it won’t replace the original in anyone’s memory, it’s not a bad idea for an R&B record — even if the execution feels conservative. Nicki Minaj feature “Touchin, Lovin” effectively recycles a big Calvin Harris-style club riff for the pop R&B format.
Sonically, Trigga is a further refinement of the glacial sound Songz has mined since his Anticipation mixtapes. His producers — like hip-hop beatmaker Dun Deal and longtime Atlantic Records production crew the Featherstones — reformat old ideas under a smooth, sophisticated, icy sheen. Although he rarely gets credit for it, he has been just as responsible for popularizing modern R&B’s vacuum-sealed atmosphere as the Weeknd and Drake — recall that Drake’s “Successful” was originally his. His songwriting is top notch, and he has a hand in writing every record. He doesn’t fit in the respectable pigeonhole of neo-soul, nor does he have the trendy, press-friendly mystique of acts like the Weeknd. But more than those artists, he’s a hitmaker, and Trigga is a true suit-and-tie R&B release, glinting with polish and precision. Trey Songz is R&B’s Bruce Wayne — at least, Bruce Wayne if he was always Bruce Wayne, and never felt an urge to be Batman.
The album’s best track, “All We Do,” is a powerful erotic fantasy (“All we do is fuck, drink, and sleep”), given potent undercurrent of emotional realism thanks to a melancholic descending piano line. It adds nuance to the escapist hedonism of his words: recognition of the temporality of it all, or that these R&B fantasies when fulfilled leave an existential emptiness. It’s hardly a new feeling, no — but have you ever heard it performed so flawlessly?