6lack is at his best when he’s at war. From the first exposure of his murky 2016 debut Free Black to sunlight, the R&B singer has sat at the fulcrum point of opposing influences, pulled in polar opposite directions by the equal gravity of love and music, of leaving for freedom or staying in comfort, of crooning or spitting clipped, rap-spattered dispatches from the deepest parts of Atlanta’s trap scene.
His best moments come from finding the center in those conflicts, ironically shining brightest at his music’s darkest depths. Unfortunately for 6lack, as his fame grows, so do his conflicts; authenticity demands he forego popularity, commercial success comes at the cost of critical acclaim, the dictates of stardom require he spend more time further from home. Fortunately for 6lack, his latest album, East Atlanta Love Letter, is necessarily full of these divergent needs and desires, which makes it a stunning improvement over his debut — even if it does mean he has to fight a little bit more.
From the opening track, 6lack is aware of the injustice of the situation; fittingly, it’s titled “Unfair” and finds the singer summarizing the entire thesis of not just this album, but his entire musical identity. “You said you never wanna share,” he grants his lover, “but know I’m stuck between what I love and who I love, and I know it’s unfair.” Already he feels trapped by the dueling impulses of chasing his musical dream and committing wholeheartedly to someone who has already made her conditions clear. He loves the music life, but he also loves the person he’s singing the song to — the song itself is the compromise he makes in order to keep some semblance of both.
The motif returns throughout the album as he addresses the “Disconnect” again on the song with that title (“Love is not struggling to tell you ‘I love ya’ / Or you saying music’s above ya”) and implores his lover for a little empathy on the Ty Dolla Sign-featuring single “Switch” (“Tell me how it feels to be somebody else”). She, however, sees this duality as nothing more than hypocrisy, an smokescreen behind which he hides infidelities indulged in while on tour or at the studio. The female subject of 6lack’s affection is represented throughout by Atlanta rapper Light Skin Keisha, who pops up with spoken word tongue lashings, telling 6lack to “keep your d*ck to yourself… that’s mine! I don’t like to share, period!”