Tinashe Ditches Her Label and Takes on New Proportions With ‘Songs For You’

Tinashe began, as many artists do, by releasing a couple mixtapes. Despite making enough of a name for herself to land gigs with the likes of Travis Scott and Britney Spears, she has been largely constrained since her 2014 debut “Aquarius.” Record label complications led to the shelving of an album, and a full half-decade wait before the release of last year’s follow-up “Joyride.” That record found the singer taking her craft to new levels, and delivering consistently masterful performances, but still playing it a bit too safe to do herself true justice. This time around, she has ditched RCA records, and dropped her first independent release, “Songs For You,” outdoing anything prior.  

Opener “Feelings” starts and stops abruptly with a snippet that encapsulates the nature of the album, with Tinashe singing, “Lately, I ain’t been in my feelings / ‘Nashe, I’ve been minding my business.” As she puts so succinctly, she’s far from wallowing in despair; she’s taking control and making things happen. There’s an exclamation of “Hitmaka,” the eponymous producer who has long worked with Tinashe on songs like her single “Me So Bad” from “Joyride,” He lays down some growling bass and trap hi hats, over which Tinashe sings with an inexhaustible supply of swag and braggadocio, declaring, “Baby, I’m that bitch… Don’t be too proud to admit that you need me.” The first of several multi-part pieces, it transforms midway into a smooth, glossy affair that nods heavily to ‘80s R&B. Having made clear that she’s taking charge, Tinashe proceeds naturally to “Life’s Too Short,” a giddy, love-drunk tune that finds her rising to helium pitches, repeating, “I just wanna love ya, I just want all you” so many times that she manages to zero in on a feeling, in an almost meditative way. When the beat drops at the end, after all this repetition, it feels earned, and Tinashe brings the song to closure singing, “All of you” as if it’s the stuff of revelation. 

“Hopscotch” places Tinashe amid a slick Dirty South-style shuffle, over which she sings with a tongue-in-cheek, silly spirit, and a cool, confident aplomb. At one point, she gives a shout out about “Taco Tuesdays,” the weekly party she has been throwing since the summer of 2017. She strings together nonsensical syllables that sound just right, like “hopscotch, block’s hot, pop rocks, off top,” adding “’Cause I own it” for good measure, over a beat of mutating “ooh ah” vocals, with snippets of a cheeseball radio DJ announcing, “Oh, ladies and gentlemen, it’s hot, hot, hot / Like LeBron in the fourth quarter.” This one is a banger. Next comes “Stormy Weather,” the latest iteration of a theme that’s becoming quite common for ‘Nashe. Her 2013 mixtape “Black Water, Tinashe featured an interlude titled ”Before The Storm“, and the outro to ”Aquarius” was titled “The Storm.” The new track is basically the titular phrase played up and extended to fill a full track, with a sexy, summery feel and a powerful, impassioned chorus over an infectious syncopated beat, rattling with angular punctuation points at all the right places.  

Tinashe goes full ‘80s on “Save Room For Us,” with designedly garish synths, plucky bass and reverberating snares. She pulls out her soaring diva vocals, melodramatically bleating, “True love will find a way… Just save room for us,” with the climactic line condensed into the catchiest snippet. On “Story of Us,” she weaves a saccharine romantic tale, starting off, “You’re the prince of… Built a castle,” and sounding appropriately princess-ey. She goes on to intersperse quick, breathy utterances with her sung phrases, showing her natural, flawless control of dynamics. There’s something in her cool manner that manages to disinfect and ultimately salvage the song from its overtly cloying nature. And then, of course, there are balancing lines thrown in, like “It’s getting later, we’re getting louder / Fuckin’ on the bathroom counter.”

Lead single “Die a Little Bit,” featuring English rapper Ms Banks is an absolute standout. Tinashe lifts a page from across the pond, taking on a sharp and oblique UK garage-style beat of the edgier variety. Her voice and Ms. Banks’ complement one another, with elusive similarities in timbre despite all the differences, like products of two parallel universes. There are scattered samples of Tinashe’s brothers, Thulani and Kudzai Kachingwe. The former, who has done some production for his sister in the past, merely speaks the line, “Who like to party?” The latter adds plenty personality, as the track samples a video released by Tinashe titled “How to Hip Hop,” which features adorable footage of a young Kudzai showing off and explaining his dance moves. Ms Banks adds some original flavor, dropping slick lines like “I came, I saw, need an encore,” and the song ends with the statement, “This is probably my favorite part because / You just get to be free,” applicable to the whole album, a first taste of independence.   

“Perfect Crime” is a bouncy number that brings us back to the ‘80s, with goofy synth bass sounds and Tinashe at her most effervescent, singing, “I come alive in the night… I wanna feel alive with you.” It’s the very sentiment that started off the album, just taken to new heights — the idea of just going for it. “Cash Race” is a spectacle of candy-coated synth sounds, delivered with pouty-lipped trap posturing, and Tinashe sounds like she’s having plenty fun, rapping, “Fendi bag, ayy, Birkin bag, ayy.” Some intricate guitar midway gives a burst of sliding, morphing color, and renders everything through a new prism, with a vaguely psychedelic groove. Next, “Link Up” creates a din-lit, codeine-soaked atmosphere with sharp handclaps, garage-type jokey sci-fi synth riffs, and dropouts for vocal pitch-downs. ‘Nashe totally owns it over this beat, boasting, “Bad bitches link up, link up / I just pulled up in a Brinks truck.” You’ve got to hand it to her for the Brinks truck bit — next level. Her little, clipped rapped phases built anticipation, so that when she finally just slightly snakes through a tune over the minimal beat, it hits harder than ever.

Single “Touch & Go” is a sultry slow jam about navigating through a rocky relationship. Over elemental pulses and reverberating swooshes, Tinashe channels her angst into impassioned belting over hushed, rootsy “mmm-hmmm” backing vocals and a short but sweet verse from 6lack. “Know Better” is another ‘80s-inspired cut, one of the punchiest pop songs and one of the most compelling vocal performances. “Nashe sings with abandon, effortlessly powerful, without getting too carried away with melismatic gymnastics like so many R&B singers do. The first half of the song is a quandary, while the second is a consolation of self. Midway, percussion recedes to a faint pulse, and it all turns to light, airy ambiance, as Tinashe gives herself something of a pep talk, with reflections that make their way into soaring vocals, enhanced by poignant violins.

Going the independent route would be a bit pointless if it didn’t come with some boldly erratic moves — and so we have “You,” a six-second track, consisting just of Tinashe whispering, “All these songs for you, baby / You know who you are.” Someone out there should felt special. The following song, “So Much Better,” seems to stem from this sentiment, extending the breathy spoken vocals over a laidback beat with a bit of West Coast cool. Tinashe sounds more smitten than ever, declaring, “treat you better… fuck you better… make you better,” and G-Eazy shows up for a quick verse. There’s yet another midsong shift, presumably the independence showing itself once more. This time, it’s a sprawling, jazzy guitar and vocal stretch, possibly the most sonically dreamy bit on the album, with Tinashe posing questions like “Would you fight for what you want?” Finally, she ties together the relationship drama thread running through the album on “I Just Wanna Love You,” in which she simply reminds repeatedly, “I’ll never forget.” There are slight echoes of early Ani diFranco in the acoustic guitar-driven soulful vocals, delivered with a bit of extra quirk, and the stripped down arrangement that brings it all neatly to closure.

It’s difficult to overemphasize how well-advised of a decision Tinashe seems to have made in leaving her label. For one, we actually get to hear new music as soon as she’s ready to release it. More importantly, the increased freedom gives her a canvass to truly shine. There’s a new boldness to the music, and a playful spirit that appears to arise from the enjoyment of it all. This quality effectively balances the melodrama at the heart of so many songs, rendering a rather emotional album an ultimately light listen, in the best possible way. From the trap stylings to the ‘80s indulgences, the coy whispers to the belting histrionics, “Songs for You” shows Tinashe entering an exciting new phase.

Songs for You” is available Nov. 22 on Apple Music.