Fame is a double-edged sword. So many of us struggle with our demons in the strive for success, sacrificing our moral standards for a shot at stardom. It’s a glamorised dream polished, packaged, and pushed to the masses. It’s all well and good until the flipside sticks and you’re stuck burrowing in the hole you were too busy to notice you were burying yourself into.
Atlanta’s resident alt-RnB purveyor 6lack spent 2016’s debut Free 6lack overindulging in the spoils of success, shooting the sweet treats of copious amounts of money, woman, and whatever else into his system across a plateau of slow-jams and trap-beats. Two years, several breakups and makeups, superstardom, and a child later and 6lack’s sophomore effort East Atlanta Love Letter offers the singers ruminations on the side of celebrity the cameras don’t shine a light on, showing off the fragile fraying ends of a relationship, the blossoming growth of a new one, and the struggles of raising a child in a paparazzi firing line. This time the beats are far more unfluctuating, a grandiose level of noir flowing through the sombre glimmers of piano that wrestle with the synth-stricken sounds of a pulsing heartbeat; an aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place on The Weeknd’s Kiss Land.
Whereas Free 6lack was void of features, East Atlanta Love Letter is a who’s who of American hip-hop and RnB royalty; from Offset and Future to J Cole, it’s jam-packed to the rafters. Whereas many projects become overfilled coffeepots crippled by their too-many-in-too-little-a-space attitudes, each of East Atlanta Love Letter’s features are deployed at just the right moment, providing depth to their retrospectives far more than being there for the sake of a namecheck. J Cole’s enlightening flow on Pretty Little Fears juxtaposes the insouciance of 6lack’s heartbreak-riddled verses with the inordinate warmth of J Cole’s love for his wife; it’s a minor detail that takes East Atlanta Love Letter the extra mile.
Inconsistency haunted Free 6lack; off-road pacing brought the trail to a stop more than once, throwing you off more times than it turned you on. It’s a problem that continues to ail 6lack on East Atlanta Love Letter, only this time its his attempt at a solution that embodies the problem. Rather than flick back and forth between the pacing of the beats, this time 6lack relies far too much on the gentler elements of his repertoire, which ultimately takes away from the poignancy and grandiosity of these moments. Whereas Free 6lack had weapons like PRBLMS in its arsenal, East Atlanta Love Letter lacks a banger or two, opting for thought-provoking sombre slow-jams set in the sobriety of the rising sun, the hangover of fame fading in.
Opening up his heart and his head and putting pen to paper across a noir backdrop of beats, 6lack takes cues from 808s & Heartbreak-era Kanye West and the aforementioned early The Weeknd material; penning words written in woe-filled ink, honest and open, simplicity at its heart that are simply tweetable. On single Switch, 6lack struggles to come to terms with fame and how to handle its consequences, lamenting “I’m thinking I should speed it up to get away from the media, I’m human, don’t you think I’ve had enough?” – it’s sombre moments like this that highlight East Atlanta Love Letter’s lamenting loneliness that runs through the lines appearing around 6lack’s metaphorical – or even literal – eyes. Fame, it seems, has impacted him far beyond his wildest dreams – and not necessarily for good.
East Atlanta Love Letter is the sound of a singer beginning to find his sound, settling down sonically in a sea of alternative-RnB soaked in whiskey-stained synths; however it’s also the sound of a singer struggling to come to terms with the shine of the spotlight. 6lack is growing day by day, track by track, album by album, however it’ll take some discussing with the devil within to rattle out the doubt settling in his mind to find the balance between slow-jam serenity and radio-friendly bangers. The question he must ask himself, as the comparisons flood in, should surely be: do you want to be album-cut Drake, club-banger Drake, or simply 6lack?