LVRN/Interscope Records
Highsnobiety

4.0/5.0

Almost exactly one month before East Atlanta Love Letter dropped, 6LACK released a single called “Nonchalant” where he briefly contemplated the ‘Difficult Second Album Syndrome’ that plagues so many young artists. With an uncharacteristic coldness reflective of the Icelandic glaciers that surround him in the video, 6LACK laments the many stars who drop their second album and then “fell off,” putting even more pressure on his own sophomore effort that was released soon after.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for such fears to thaw away as opening track “Unfair” instantly draws the listener in with a hypnotic piano intro that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The song begins with a brutally honest line from 6LACK, capturing the kind of raw sincerity that one might expect from a “Love Letter” like this: “Hope my mistakes don’t make me less of a man, But lately it feel like them shits really can.”

Remorseful lyrics and some impressive high notes in the chorus start the album off strong, but it’s in one of the earliest lines that 6LACK’s appeal is summarized best, revealing that when he finds something hard to say, “I write a song.” By opening up in this way – through his writing – 6LACK thereby sidesteps the misogynistic tendencies of hip-hop for the most part, and has won himself a dedicated fanbase as a result.

Unafraid to share his feelings, the artist otherwise known as Ricardo Valentine once told Highsnobiety that he can’t really “filter, censor or hide” his emotions for anyone, and it’s this refusal to hold back that makes East Atlanta Love Letter such a resounding success. Even before the album was released, 6LACK already invited fans to actively consider the themes of his sophomore effort through social media, asking them to send in videos to answer his various questions about love and desire.

With such an intense focus on haunting synths and sensitive lyricism, fans in the past have inevitably noted similarities between 6LACK and The Weeknd. Such comparisons have always been rather lazy though, and with East Atlanta Love Letter, Valentine has distanced himself even further from the likes of Abel Tesfaye by crystallizing exactly what is is that makes his brand of R&B so unique. While The Weeknd has become more and more polished as time goes by, 6LACK’s lack of a filter makes everything he writes painfully relatable, like the kind of love letter that you would hope never sees the light of day.

On album highlight “Sorry,” confessional lyrics like “Crying over what’s left, ’cause without you, I ain’t shit… but no pressure” resonate with a painful degree of vulnerability. 6LACK himself revealed on Twitter that this emotional ballad is the one that he feels most emotionally connected to, but “Sorry” isn’t the only song that will force thousands of listeners to look back on their own failed relationships too.

“Disconnect” also touches on the futility of a love that’s doomed with a heartbreaking piano refrain that provides the perfect counterpoint to 6LACK’s smooth vocal delivery. “Love is not looking over shoulders, love is you should trust what I told ya”. Each song’s murky production style could have resulted in a run of songs that bleed into each other until everything sounds the same. Fortunately, executive producers Jakob Rabitsch and Singawd do everything they can to avoid this pitfall by incorporating a mix of classic instrumentation and trap-style beats in order to create a sonically cohesive body of work that improves upon 6LACK’s already impressive debut.

Although songs like “Stan” and “Let Her Go” continue in the vein of Valentine’s first album, eschewing guest features for the most part, some of the best tracks this time round are the ones that include appearances from hip-hop’s brightest stars. However, 6LACK is not one to collaborate purely for the sake of collaborating, and here, he’s clearly chosen to work with artists who compliment his own style.

On the album’s title track, Future joins 6LACK for a celebratory ode to their shared hometown, syncing their voices together in one of the best songs either artist has released this year. One of the other high-profile duets of the album is “Pretty Little Fears,” which unites 6LACK with the only artist more adverse to features than he is, J. Cole. Together, the pair sing and rap about the sexual and emotional intimacy that the very best relationships can nurture, opening up with an unusually positive verse for 6LACK in the process.

A number of skits delve even further into Valentine’s hip-hop leanings, most notably through the voice of Atlanta rapper Light Skin Keisha, who berates Valentine with some light-hearted interludes. 6LACK doesn’t just rely on his various guests to rap on the album though. At the end of the track “Scripture,” the rising star notes that “If I don’t rap anywhere on this, people gon’ hate me,” so he gives the people what they want while opening up about the times he encountered gun violence as a teenager.

Proving that his honest approach to songwriting extends beyond love and sex, 6LACK spits lines like “Them bullets really have you thinking about your unborn/ Imagine if my whole life was untorn,” with admirable dexterity, reminding listeners that he’s an “R&B n*gga with a hip-hop core.” Not every foray into rap works, though. Some clunky lyrics on “Loaded Gun” push the dick metaphor further than necessary, but then the way that he subverts expectations on tracks like “Stan” win you over again, scrambling the meaning of the term that was first coined by Eminem on his own song of the same name.

As an album, East Atlanta Love Letter doesn’t work as a tribute to Atlanta in the same way that an album like JAY-Z’s American Gangster explored the inner trappings of NYC. Instead, 6LACK explores all kinds of love on his sophomore effort, including love for his hometown, love for his one year old daughter (who appears on the cover), and love lost, too.

In the album’s accompanying booklet, 6LACK tells readers to “Never give up on love,” and it’s exactly this kind of earnest intensity that sets the young star apart from his peers. Among the brooding synths and tales of heartbreak lies a message of hope, reminding listeners that they’re not alone in their struggles. No where is this more clear than on the song “Seasons,” where 6LACK and guest star Khalid sing that after “a real long winter, a beautiful summer’s calling”.

If there’s any justice in the world, then the citizens of East Atlanta and the rest of the world too will write 6LACK their own love letter in response to this album. Not only does the young star’s latest release defy the usual sophomore slump, but it could very well end up becoming a major player on many end of year lists by the time that 2018’s “real long winter” draws to a close.

6LACK’s ‘East Atlanta Love Letter’ is available to buy or stream. For more of our album reviews, head here.

Words by David Opie
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