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.”
Alsina leaves behind the thematic template of his previous hits as well, focusing almost entirely on the struggles of America’s poor black community. He covered this ground on his 2014 debut, Testimony, but now it is the dominant concern, especially after the first few tracks, which feel like weak attempts at commercial collaborations with big-name guests (Lil Wayne) but don’t fit with the rest of the album. Alsina anticipates listeners’ potential cynicism at the end of a song called “Change,” intoning softly, “I’m guilty of daydreaming I can change the world.” As soon as he expresses his lofty ambition, the track dissolves into a recording of laughter — an easy way to dodge his sincerity.
But on the phone, the singer consistently returns to his message of uplift. “Hope — I wanted to give to that to the people,” he says. “When you do that, you have to be willing to be unpopular. It’s not the formula for radio songs.”
Case in point: the album’s third single, “Song Cry,” an outpouring of anguish that includes thoughts of suicide and crippling levels of loneliness. (Alsina also discussed suicide in a recent interview with the New York radio station Power 105.1.) There are barbs beneath the tears: “I tried to buy my mama’s love/No, she don’t appreciate it,” he sings. “So I stay inebriated/I figured J. Cole or Drizzy Drake would drop a verse and tell the world how we hurtin’/Guess I was mistaken.” Alsina insists that this line is not an insult aimed at two of rap’s biggest stars. “That just comes from respect,” he says. “They’re people I look up to. They put me in a place to grow.”
“I’m trying to save myself from this fucked-up-ass world we live in.”
Because he’s an outlier, the singer frequently ends up defending his choice of topics. “It’s not a complaint,” he avers. “It’s not, ‘I want your pity.’ I’m trying to save me from me. I’m trying to save myself from this fucked-up-ass world we live in.
“A lot of people just hide that part of their life,” he continues. “I’m not the only one out this motherfucker who feels that way.”
This is undoubtedly true, but he’s one of just a handful of singers acting on these feelings. For now, Alsina is resigned to this. “I’m gonna keep going. They got me as a sex symbol,” he exclaims incredulously. “You haven’t heard August Alsina make a sex song!” Then he backpedals slightly: “Maybe one sex song.” But the previous success of “I Luv This Shit” proved to him that he had to branch out. “God showed me, ‘You know how to do this. What else can you do?'”