Tinashe – “Aquarius”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Bet” “2 On” “Bated Breath”

There are a number of goals an artist has to have going into a debut album, but maybe the most important is signifying your sound and immediately making it your own. Tinashe does this and more, with her hip-hop/R&B blend and smart lyrics coming together in one of the year’s biggest surprises.

“Aquarius” doesn’t subscribe to any genres. This is growing typical of the hybrid R&B/hip-hop genre that is melting together and becoming it’s own being, but this album is especially inclusive. Tinashe comes out of the gate brimming with confidence, knowing she can pull off any of the ideas that come up. And she does – from sultry R&B, to smooth vocal ballads to a straight DJ Mustard track (“2 On,” which you’ve heard a million times, but it still hasn’t gotten worn out). By the end of the second track, Tinashe has already established herself as a unique voice, unafraid to try things unheard of in older R&B.

That second track, “Bet,” firmly establishes the album’s foundation. The song, distinctly R&B, is also a collaboration with Blood Orange and ends with a very lengthy, ambient guitar solo. It’s the album’s second-longest track, and it takes its sweet time. The song announces for the album that Tinashe is in total control, flowing through different styles and dominating every track. Her vocals are strong and engaging, traditionally sultry in an untraditional format. “Bated Breath” is the album’s best vocal song (and the actual longest track), a seductive ballad in the album’s final act with Tinashe’s voice soaring over the music, and one that stops on a dime halfway through and re-crescendos with an engrossing coda. Compare this with the straight hip-hop of “2 On,” and you get a well-rounded singer. Her lyrics, too, are often smart and occasionally conceptual and subversive. The most notable track is “Pretend,” about trying your hardest to ignore problems in a relationship, even for a minute. A$ap Rocky drops in for a verse, as her deadbeat boyfriend. A$ap Rocky, Future and Schoolboy Q all contribute excellent verses on the album, and are all shown up by Tinashe.

Musically, Tinashe takes as many liberties as she does vocally. The album is mostly slow-moving, melodic and low-key R&B with club beats and ambient rhythms. But it is peppered with guitar, piano, and volume. Each track is it’s own entity, and they’re nearly all distinguishable from each other. “Pretend” excels on an unexpected, minimalistic beat that’s closer to a home recording than it is a radio cut. The album is also divided into pieces, split by five interludes and an outro. Most are little more than minute-long tracks serving to shake up the flow, although the interlude titled “Indigo Child” is itself a rather experimental and slightly haunting track, one that hits the album’s loudest volume.

The album’s only real fault is a slightly bloated running-time of 55:43. Its eighteen tracks do include the six interludes, so it is less daunting than it looks, but it does sag a bit in the midsection. It could do without a few tracks; it could stand to be a little tighter. Still, as it stands, “Aquarius” might be the year’s best debut, and is certainly one of the best hip-hop albums. In a world filled with young TV personalities trying to shed their former status and make it in music – namely Miley and Ariana Grande – Tinashe has quickly emerged as one of the stars (Tinashe, only 21, was known previously not for music but for roles in “The Polar Express” and “Two and a Half Men”). “Aquarius” is an instantly enjoyable and thorough album, one that doesn’t demand multiple listens, but slyly convinces them instead. Tinashe is in total control on her debut, and it’s relentless fun.

-By Andrew McNally