Tinashe‘s Aquarius might be the closest we’ll get to a new Cassie album. For years, fans of the latter — those attuned to the spry, minimalist R&B pop of her 2006 self-titled record, which influenced artists as diverse as Jeremih and Jessy Lanza — have been fervently hoping the one-hit wonder will ditch the red carpet and release something as powerful as “Me & U.” Since its January release, Tinashe’s ubiquitous DJ Mustard collab “2 On” has been compared to the Cassie hit: They’re both spare and smoky minor-key come-ons, purred by a glamazon in boys’ clothing with reedy, attenuated vocals.
But unlike Cassie, Tinashe has range, including a foundation of three self-released mixtapes, a suite of relevant producers and dynamic vocals — and on Aquarius she’s flexing. Second single “Pretend,” a forlorn ballad complicated by Detail’s dizzying, muted synths, makes that clear. Simply put, Aquarius is one of the strongest R&B-pop records of the year: 17 tracks inspired by the bounce and bravado of rap, but not limited by its aesthetic tropes. Its ultimate strength, alongside Tinashe’s alluring vocals, is that we get to hear some of the best producers working in experiment mode. The Mike Will Made It-produced “Thug Cry” is less the broadstroke pop of his collabs with Miley, and more in line with the songs he made for Kelly Rowland, Brandy and Rihanna. “Cold Sweat,” an icy, downtempo ballad, sounds like something Boi-1da and Drake might have cobbled together for that now-defunct Aaliyah tribute project. And Norwegian pop super-producers Stargate team up with internet remix whiz kid (and fellow Norwegian) Cashmere Cat for “All Hands on Deck,” where boisterous, Jock Jam synth riffs collide with a zen-sounding wooden flute. But the real standout is “Bet,” a mood piece sheathed in pitch-shifted vocals, crystalline synths and elongated hi-hat blasts. It’s produced by Grimes affiliate Blood Diamonds along with Drake and Kendrick hit-maker DJ Dahi, and it closes with a fervent Dev Hynes guitar solo. It’s an unpredictable and immensely rewarding collaboration.
On Aquarius, an album lyrically consumed with romantic deception, the most we glean from Tinashe is that she’s a malleable musician. Transcending one-hit status might be difficult. Maybe the best indicator for where she can go is “How Many Times,” a Janet Jackson-sampling ballad that invokes classic Quiet Storm R&B. It’s fulsome and slightly retrograde among the rest of the album’s otherwise streamlined programming, and that makes it the seed of an idea.