The singer August Alsina has a term for his music. “I like to call it hope for the hopeless,” he explains over the phone. He has just released his second album, This Thing Called Life, and he is aware that his point of view makes him a dissident within mainstream R&B: Hope is out of fashion — look at the Weeknd, whose dark themes helped make him one of the year’s biggest success stories. “I feel like I don’t fit in,” Alsina notes. “There’s not a lot of outlets for urban music, for black artists who don’t have that crossover thing going early on. I’m the black sheep around this motherfucker. I don’t say the things that somebody would expect me to say.”
But it wasn’t always this way: Alsina’s first single, “I Luv This Shit,” was a Number One hit on the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hip chart in 2013. The beat was brassy and imperious; the singer was in party mode: “Two o’clock and I’m faded/This kush feeling amazing/Got a voicemail on my phone from a little breezy feeling X-rated.” It was effective but also indistinct, a track that could have been made by any of Alsina’s peers.
This Thing Called Life is distinguished by a marked turn away from the sound of that single — and of radio R&B more generally. Seven songs on the record are produced by Knucklehead (Samuel Irving), the man behind “I Luv This Shit,” but the beat-maker suggests that he had little interest in reprising that formula. “The turn-up music could have been done so easily,” Knucklehead affirms confidently in a separate conversation. “But I just felt like the world needed food that sticks to their ribs. My goal was to go as far to the left of ‘I Luv This Shit’ as possible.”
The first sign of this was “Hip-Hop,” which appeared in April and evoked Nineties boom bap cooked down to its ragged essence. Large portions of the song feature the singer loping along with only a rifle-shot breakbeat, and the track is strangely bass-less until the hook. “When I first made [the beat], I had August or Nas in mind,” Knucklehead remembers. “[Alsina] spilled his heart on that record — the Mike Brown situation, the police stuff that was going on. The world needs records like that to feed on.”
In sound and theme, this is far from the work of competitors like Jeremih or Chris Brown, and This Thing Called Life largely follows in the footsteps of “Hip Hop,” ignoring the trap-derived or dancefloor-aiming production that rules contemporary R&B and incorporating more guitars than is common. But there’s a cost to denying current trends: None of the singles have replicated the path of Alsina’s previous hits. “The radio is so dumbed-down,” Knucklehead laments. “When a record like [‘Hip Hop’] hits the radio, they don’t know how to react to it. They sleep on good music.”