Tinashe Juggles Heartbreak and Hedonism on Catchy, Conventional ‘333’

At 28, Tinashe has produced a body of work that rivals artists two or three times her age: “333” is her fifth studio album, but her tenth overall project, and that doesn’t even count the EP she released in 2009 (at 16) as a part of girl group The Stunners. Her talent is undeniable and her prodigious output cannot be ignored. But for better or worse, her music exemplifies a stylistic race to the middle for artists who hope to claim space on the pop and R&B charts but don’t have the identity, or energy, to defy or avoid the all-encompassing elements that have become synonymous with those genres. “333” virtually guarantees at least a few more hits for the Kentucky native, but in a musical community that includes Doja Cat, Solange, SZA, Alessia Cara, Sudan Archives, Kali Uchis and dozens of others, Tinashe’s ability to find the halfway point between all of these artists is a skill that unfortunately does not render her work as distinctive as it should — or listeners may wish it could.

Coming out of the gate with the booming, take-no-prisoners anthem “I Can See The Future,” Tinashe wastes no time letting listeners know that she’s in control — of her sexuality, her status as a “slim baddie,” and most specifically, her man. Her rhymes leave more than a little to be desired (“Baby, all up on me, ignore ’em, they all spam / Face is picture-perfect, the body is on ten / I don’t argue with these bitches, they petty, they all fans / I got drip from next season, exclusive or custom”), but it’s remarkable how many sins can be covered up with an 808. Next, “X,” her follow-up with Jeremih, feels like the payoff to what she promises in “Future,” as she details what she wants, and wants to do to the lucky object of her affection. 

“Shy Guy” offers a different take on her romantic dynamics, and momentarily kicks off the trap formulas she confidently adopts in favor of a sound that flirts convincingly, and charmingly, with drum and bass; unfortunately, the track runs less than a minute before she dives back into the more conventional sounds of contemporary soul with “Bouncin’,” a Ciara copycat that oozes with personality-free dancefloor fun. In the larger context of the album, a song like “Unconditional” breaks the spell of the empowering persona she led with as she effectively catalogues her disappointments with a partner and then tries to win him or her by promising unconditional love: “I forgive you for whatever you’ve done to me / That’s how much I love you/ That’s how much I fuck with you/ I would give you room to figure it all out.” 

It isn’t until Tinashe duets with Kaash Paige on “Angels” that she seems to take a real creative risk as the two bisexual artists essentially woo each other over the course of the song’s verses, something that hasn’t really been heard before and certainly not in mainstream R&B. She takes different risks on “333,” albeit mostly with her vocal range; she again aims to hit this whispery soprano that Ciara was able to stake out as her territory, but lacks the power to sell her impersonation effectively. She ventures into the melancholy electro territory of the Weeknd on “Undo (Back To My Heart),” a welcome new sound after the first half of the record’s overwhelming sameness, and then unconvincingly tries to work out break-up sentiments on the dancefloor with “Let Me Down Slowly,” a song that seems destined to soon be mixed with Hex Hector’s remix of “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here.” 

The low key love-story narrative of “333” becomes clear by the time she gets to “Last Call,” a wistful look at the relationship she knows is bad for her, but it doesn’t yet feel good to end. If she were owning the contradictions between these musical vignettes a little more deliberately, it would create a pretty interesting and honest portrait of a young woman who probably feels and behaves like a lot of her listeners; unfortunately, the variety between songs where you’re meant to feel good or bad comes across as a checklist for maximum commercial appeal. She neither seems candid enough as a person nor skilled as a songwriter to turn that panorama of feelings into something meaningful, so where the lash-out vibes of “The Chase” could really be cutting and sad as a portrait of a young woman in pain, she reduces them to petty tit-for-tat comebacks.

Especially because it comes so late in the sequencing, “333”’s first single “Pasadena” manages to fully encapsulate the weird, dopey, contradictory ambitions of the album as a whole, as she starts by singing about “feeling right and living life,” then shifts into introspection about “going through the motions,” and later juxtaposes her mother’s advice that “life is your for the takin’” with the acknowledgment she should help her family more because “daddy don’t need no more jobs.” Further, she twice pointlessly mentions the Los Angeles-adjacent city in the title, but also talks about being in a penthouse where “you see to the ocean,” which you can’t do in Pasadena, before guest vocalist Buddy mentions taking a young woman to Miami. Afterward, she moves into the final stretch with a collection of songs that don’t really have a particular focus, and further don’t have much focus even internally, as on the superficial “life advice” dispensary of “Small Reminders.” Finally, “It’s A Wrap” closes the record with a mutual farewell between Tinashe and artist Kudzai, but their he-said-she-said routine is as ambivalent as everything else that came before it. 

And so, with “333” Tinashe accomplishes the task of covering all of the needed bases to be a prolific and successful contemporary R&B artist, touching on all of the topics and utilizing all of the sounds that all of her contemporaries do. She’s proven it’s a bottomless well from a commercial standpoint, but after five albums and ten projects, the creativity in this music is dangerously close to running dry.

333” releases Aug. 6 on Apple Music.