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?'”