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!”
It adds another layer of duality — music, in this case, could be the freedom of bachelorhood, or at least one comes along with the other. The push-pull dynamic is as undeniable as his cinnamon vocals, sliding up and down his warm tenor register even as his delivery is shot through with the sandpaper edges of his Atlanta trap inclinations. His voice provides a counterpoint to the dark production as well, with bright, honeyed tones cutting through the slurring, gloomy, downtempo trap of producers and longtime collaborators Bizness Boi, Cardiak, ONLYXNE, T-Minus, and Stwo.
The push and pull between his hip-hop leanings and his clear grounding in molasses-thick, smoky R&B is as evident as the tumultuous, tidal waxing and waning of his love life. 6lack recognizes that the soupy soul of popular prior tracks like “Prblms” is his bread and butter, but he also knows that “if I don’t rap anywhere on this, people are gon’ hate me,” as he quips at the end of “Scripture,” Love Letter’s sole, straight up rap track.
He sets aside the musings of his lovesick heart for the colder reminisces of terror-struck memories. “Ever since a n—a put a gun to my face / That sh*t do really make you think / I was thinking ’bout my kid / Sixteen, didn’t even have a kid.” Again, he finds a balance between the stone-cold realities of life and the more tender recollections elsewhere in his narrative. The cover of East Atlanta features 6lack standing in a makeshift recording studio in his kitchen with his baby daughter slung across his chest. The parallel is stark; without music, he wouldn’t be here, but without his daughter, he wouldn’t have music.
The album closes with yet another sly tie-in between his two worlds as he repurposes the Eminem-coined “Stan” as a term of endearment. He draws a parallel between the support of a musical fan and a life partner. They’re really the same thing for him — one could just as easily be the other when he intones: “Say you’ll always be my greatest fan / Sing your favorite words just like a band / Only if you’ll love me like a stan.” For 6lack, hip-hop and R&B, love and lust, music and relationships are all just two sides of the same coins. One can’t exist without the other, and each side informs the other, making it more meaningful. “I’m a R&B n—a with a hip-hop core,” he declares on “Scripture.” He embraces each side, even though at times they seem at odds, knowing that neither side could ever be more beautiful than the sum of both.
East Atlanta Love Letter is out now via LVRN/Interscope Records. Get it here.