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When The Weeknd rose to eminence in the early 2010s, with him came the rise of a new subculture of R&B: the grainy, gravelly, yet simultaneously atmospheric vein that prides itself on the atmosphere more than the lyrical content. What became his calling card has become R&B's new-age aesthetic, in the way that melodic raps have become new-age hip-hop's style. 6lack's sophomore album recognizes these conventions as its inciting factor, but digs deeper into the bag. East Atlanta Love Letter grounds the atmospheric into the introspective, creating a devilish, depressing mix of sultry sounds and haunting lyrics half-sung, half-rapped. It picks its mood and decides to ride it out from start to finish.
For the uninitiated into 6lack lore, East Atlanta Love Letter could be mundane. It's a necessary second chapter in a thrilling, yet-to-be-told story. The thrills come in 6lack's gloomy outlook at post-fame that manages to feel more authentically downtrodden than his peers. In hip-hop and R&B, the obligatory "Now I'm famous and you guys don't understand what I'm going through" spiel often reads as eye-rolling, a lackluster attempt at a humble brag that gets worse as the artist goes on and on. The carefully curated social media image of constant enjoyment and luxury is at odds with the inner turmoil that they commercialize to gain another buck. 6lack's image is that of mystery. He's not out on the scene rubbing elbows or flicking it up for the 'gram. That makes his struggles more easily understandable and identifiable. And that's what makes East Atlanta Love Letter that much more listenable. His sonnets are those of authentic struggle within a new environment that he yet knows how to navigate. He's scared.
Love, for 6lack, is a Debbie Downer. He focuses on the shitty side of love, the elephant sitting on your chest, the looming dread that comes with wondering if this mistake will be the one to extinguish a connected future, bonds forged in darkness that will never transcend their unlikely beginnings. "Unfair" is a grainy opener fraught with the weight of unstable moods. 6lack tempers with his pitch for a startlingly bright contrast, showcasing his frustration and excitement at a partner who matches his argumentative energy. 6lack questions the depth of his love in relation to the mistakes that bruise his masculinity. It segways unnaturally into the declarative follow-up "Loaded Gun," where 6lack threatens his woman with the constant possibility of unfaithfulness. His phallic member is a "loaded gun" in more ways than one. It could blow if triggered properly, but it's also dangerous. He could expose it when he wants, and there's nothing that his woman could do about it, other than accept the repercussions in the name of love. He tells her harshly that she better fuck him like she could lose him because, in the world of sold-out music tours, it's a very real possibility.
If you hate 6lack for presenting the harshness of his reality, you'll be sick before you finish East Atlanta Love Letter. The album's title track echoes a similar harshness even while 6lack and Future's voices strum the sultry production's fur ever so gently. The duo compare the weight of their words—in the pursuit of love—to the Romanian Draco AK-47. It's a piercing comparison that sits even harder with 6lack's ability to "remix your life like cut cocaine, it's a rerock" that makes you ponder the circumstances of Atlanta's atmosphere. In what universe does comparing romantic power to dangerous vices sound appealing? "Sorry" comes limping along with two verses and a chorus of apologies that sound perfunctory – maybe purposefully. When you think back to the bluntness of "Loaded Gun" where he pretty much excuses infidelity as a necessary evil, the weight of "Sorry" feels featherweight. He told a fan on Twitter that "Sorry" was the most vulnerable, it's just weird that another song makes it pretty much meaningless.
Aside from the brutal weight of love in a loveless career field, two moods that continuously circle around are fear and uncertainty. The possibility of making yet another mistake scares the shit out of 6lack. He's walking uncertain ground, so the long-branching effects of slip-ups won't be known for some time. On "Sorry," he sings "mistakes feel like a fracture in my bones" and his anxiety can be extrapolated from the quivering in his voice. But his maturity is never questionable; on the journalistic "Scripture," he raps, "Still new, but my attitude veteran." He talks like he knows what to avoid and why, yet he still remains tempted by everything coming his way.
6lack remains affixed to a piano-centric, slower, darker sound than many of his peers. There's the introspective kick that The Weeknd popularized but, where The Weeknd and his descendants typically focus on more spacey and atmospheric beats, 6lack goes the other direction, choosing more morose fair. Think if Edgar Allen Poe became a recording artist in 2018. Much of the bass is staccato, with lurching, anxious ambience gripping the air fearfully. The few features that appear here also sensibly fit the established atmosphere. Future's crooning works better than one would expect over the innocence of "East Atlanta Love Letter." J. Cole's voice was dipped an octave lower for "Pretty Little Fears" and his wounded verse is more grounded because of it. Offset is, well, Offset on "Balenciaga Challenge." There's not that much to take from Offset by design; he's very opaque, with his features often serving as filler for when a beat runs too long, but the artist doesn't want to cut the song short. It's a shame that 6lack didn't just keep the song to himself, though. He's "penicillin in the cut," and his effortlessly calm energy makes his turn on the booming, suave production a thrill to take in.
The album's standout comes right before the album closes suddenly. "Seasons" is its most optimistic track and a hopeful look towards the future. 6lack equates summer to happier times in a smooth comparison that exists in the tone of his voice versus explicit portrayal. Khalid's feature is the album's standout. There's not a voice on the web similar to Khalid's that manages to be massaging and calm at the same time. When 6lack and Khalid combine their light and dark voices, the stars align for a goosebumps-inducing opus that creates a brilliant, happy mood.
East Atlanta Love Letter is more claustrophobic and personal than your standard, 2018, atmospheric R&B release. 6lack's dark world is reflected in the tight scope of his music. For the scope of the world that it contains, 6lack's latest is a brilliant, morose examination of an asshole that happens to be in love. The weight of some of his words is impacted by the album's sequencing, but the fact that this even impacts someone's viewpoint is the mark of excellent crafting and an understanding of a world untethered by industry or artistic expectation. If you're into more luxe compositions, East Atlanta Love Letter may disappoint you. The album's focus on intimacy, fear, and anxiety, three defining tenants in young 20-somethings' lives, makes it a necessary, if haunting, listen for those looking for something a little different. If you don't come out of this a little angrier, you didn't listen to it right.
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