Pink Sweats Forges a New Path Through R&B on the Soulful, Eclectic ‘Pink Planet’

The great virtue of young artists ignoring or being unfamiliar with what came before them is that they don’t know what they don’t know; there are no rules to adhere to, much less to break. It doesn’t mean they don’t sound like anything that came before them, but in the case of a promising singer or songwriter like the conspicuously gifted R&B artist Pink Sweats — who indicated in interviews that he didn’t grow up with a lot of influences — there’s a thrill listening to the different sounds woven through his music, even if he arrives at a destination well-traversed by the likes of Frank Ocean, Miguel, Khalid and others, much less musical forebears who paved the way for them all. “Pink Planet” marks David Bowden’s full-length debut as Pink Sweats after three acclaimed EPs, not just encompassing the broad spectrum of genres he loves and listens to (and writes for) from hip-hip to country, but his own evolution as an artist, and announcing the arrival of a performer to watch.

An interlude that shows up about halfway through the record “explains” his style, or at least his influences; “I would make it a habit to listen to all the different genre stations,” he says, “and for me, that was an escape.” This context feels important as he opens on “Pink City” with a bluesy, gospel-inspired riff, shuffles through strong country vibes, and eventually gives hip-hop a sorely-needed dose of melodicism. If as the Pennsylvania native claims he was content to record demos rather than being an artist himself, there’s no evidence of that modesty or unpreparedness here, as his music could easily stake a claim on any chart he wanted to occupy. Moreover, what he lacks in originality on a song like “Heaven,” he more than makes up for with moxie: in between producer Keenan’s unhurried guitar solos, Bowden offers a beautiful tribute to the current love — or at least lust — of his life, singing, “I put my pride aside / I traded this whole life / Just for one night.”

If he slightly lacks the unvarnished honesty of Ocean or the effortless sensuality of Miguel, Bowden distinguishes himself with a directness that suggests his sentiments are earnest, whether or not they bring the house down. On “Paradise,” he champions a relationship that he knows has its ups and downs, but gives him hope for the future, and in particular, theirs together: “We fell apart too many times, yeah / But we always land back hеre some way, somehow / Whеn I close my eyes, I’m feelin’ so divine.” The record feels like great early-relationship music, conveying deeper feeling without applying too much pressure — in other words, ok for the bedroom but nice and noncommittal on a Sunday afternoon over brunch. “Magic” perfectly exemplifies that tone, a wonderful halfway point between the end-of-the-world urgency of The Weeknd and Maxwell’s polished, live-band love jams, finished off with a chorus that could have come from a late ‘80s Luther Vandross track.

“So Sweet” feels a bit like the teenage version of D’Angelo’s sweat-drenched “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” slightly more direct in its emotionality at the expense of the smoldering heat his predecessor brought. “Chains,” on the other hand, offers romantic rhapsody in a metaphor (“I’m a slave for you / Got me wrapped up in your chains / I’d throw my life away for you”) that for better or worse was easier to use a few generations ago than it probably is today. Whether you want to attribute a choice like that to fearlessness or ignorance, the music is so enjoyable that potential controversies seem easy to forget; by the time he kicks off the second half of the album with “Beautiful Life,” one of the better Sade songs that Ms. Adu never recorded, you’re either caught up completely in his style or didn’t stick around long enough to get rankled by the potentially problematic lyrics. Unfortunately, he seems to lose his focus a bit on the back half of the album; even if “Pink Money” would fit perfectly alongside Frank Ocean’s contributions to Calvin Harris’ “Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1” album, his choice to venture into tropical soul yields less memorable results than what came before. That said, only a couple of songs last past three minutes, and a few (including “Pink Money”) fade out so abruptly that you actually wish they were a little longer so you could live a bit inside his slinky grooves.

“At My Worst” previously appeared on his 2020 EP, “The Prelude,” and juggles acoustic guitar and xylophone; if there’s a shortcoming to his genre-hopping style (much less his seeming indifference to what has come before), it’s that by comparison to standard-bearers like Babyface’s “When Will I See You Again,” Bowden’s pleas sound slightly like they were created from some kind of romantic algorithm rather than a single, clear idea he hoped to communicate, or confess. That said, he gives the “our love is timeless” genre a new coat of paint with “17,” exploring not the age of his partner but the freshness of their mutual enthusiasm for one another; but at 28, he lacks either the songwriting depth or life experience to freshen up what becomes a slightly repetitive theme of “we don’t always get along but I’ll love you forever” on songs like “Lows,” another beautifully rendered ballad that doesn’t offer any new ideas or insights than the million or so songs about the subject that came before it.

Curiously (and thankfully), Bowden doesn’t get around to discussing his detractors until the record is almost over; though he’s suitably frustrated on “Not Alright,” his musical rejoinder sounds more like The Weeknd than most of the rest of the material on “Pink Planet,” and he confesses his feelings without enough novelty, or poetry, to leave an impression (“I’m not alright / Fightin’ a war that I’m gonna lose”). But he finishes strong with some tracks that may stray from the acoustic soul that dominates the album, while further pushing him into musical spheres that will allow different kinds of listeners to hear his music. “Icy” is sheer pop perfection, full of a swagger that honestly too much of the rest of his music lacks as he sings about looking good and kickin’ it with his crew, then offsets the autotuned enhancements on “Pink Family” with a straight rap verse and what sounds like a children’s choir, again subverting expectations about himself while shrewdly satisfying a marketplace accustomed to many of these sounds, but not necessarily all at the same time. 

Packing in a couple of his earlier hits as a coda, including “Honesty” from “Volume 1,” Bowden isn’t merely revisiting former glories but providing a service for listeners who aren’t familiar with him — not just his talent, but his versatility. This increasingly commonplace tactic can sometimes feel craven (and if you’ve been buying singles piecemeal, annoying), but “Pink Planet” is more than his first full-length; it’s a road map from the places he’s already gone to where he’s headed. Clearly it’s too soon to herald Pink Sweats as modern R&B’s new savior, but if he doesn’t realize that he’s treading the same path as contemporaries and antecedents, then “Pink Planet” suggest that the best way for him to keep delivering entertaining, personal, high-quality music is for him to ignore them, and for us not to tell him. 

Pink Planet” releases Feb. 12 on Apple Music.