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In the leadup to the release of his third album, Love Sick, Houston rapper-singer Don Toliver said enough of the right things to make me believe that this would be the project of his that would finally tell us who he is.
“On this particular album, I really locked in on the actual story and the theme of the album and basically the tracklist is going in sequence, in motion of the actual story, of what it will be,” he said in one interview.
“I want people to listen to my music and think it’s timeless,” he echoed in another. “To think about Marvin Gaye, Sade, Jay-Z, and just listen again. All I strive for is to be in the conversation with some of the greatest of all time.”
The one thing all of those greats did, though, is put themselves into their music. When you push play on “Song Cry,” you get the impression that Jay is letting us in on a moment in his life. When Marvin Gaye made “What’s Goin’ On?” it was considered a massive creative risk, but it was a sentiment he cared about deeply enough to take that risk.
With Don Toliver, I’ve never gotten the impression that I’m learning anything about him or what he truly cares about in his music. I tend to believe that he’s the consummate aesthete – his presentation is everything, and he’s going for a look rather than a feel.
The feeling that pervaded his prior releases Heaven Or Hell and Life Of A Don is that his primary preoccupation in making them was imitating and improving upon the aesthetics of stylistic forebears like his mentor Travis Scott, Future (both of whom appear here), and Young Thug – i.e. the wounded melodic howling, eerie vocal effects, and clipped, erratic rap deliveries that made them stand out from the pack when they first broke out in the middle of the last decade.
Love Sick, on the other hand, seemed like it would be a step forward when we’d begin to see more of the artist in his work. Love, after all, is the most personal and primal of human emotions, even as it remains the most universal. If any subject could crack the facade and reveal the interiority missing from Toliver’s past projects, this would be it.
After a few listens to Love Sick, though, I still haven’t figured out who Don Toliver is.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a polished, pleasant body of work. If nothing else, he’s upped his game with regard to developing his own artistic flourishes. Perhaps credit belongs to his expanded roster of production partners. After all, it’s hard not to notice that the Kaytranada-produced “Honeymoon” is a standout, nor is the dreamy quality of “Let Her Go,” which features James Blake.
The hyperfocus on subject matter allows Toliver much more room to play around sonically. So while there are still cavernous club 808s and bellowing synthetic bass lines aplenty – “Leave The Club” is a prime example – “Leather Club” finds a smooth, almost ‘80s adult contemporary vibe well suited to his Drake-lite lamentations of one-directional affections.
“Slow Motion” with Wizkid is a surprising dance floor banger that goes in a completely different direction than you’d expect with the Afropop star involved, “If I Had” recruits quiet storm favorite Charlie Wilson for a classic example of the genre, and Chicago heads will almost certainly figure out a few new juke steps to “Bus Stop.”
Throughout Love Sick, I get the feeling that Don Toliver is a nice guy who is really kind of a music nerd, someone collaborators really enjoy testing out new sounds with. But there’s still no sense of identity, that undefinable something that instantly lets you know when you’re hearing a song from Future, Travis Scott, or Young Thug.
The good news is that Toliver is really good at executing an idea, and that’s a step in the right direction for where he wants to be. Coming up with a concept and making music that effectively conveys those ideas is really hard – that’s why we hold such respect for artists. If Love Sick has more style than substance, that style is really charming and enjoyable.
And if Toliver hadn’t managed to at least do that much, we wouldn’t be talking about him at all. If he wants us to talk about him in the same breath as Sade Adu, he’s laid a decent foundation for that conversation to take place. But he still needs to give us something to talk about. He’s almost there.
Love Sick is out now via Cactus Jack and Atlantic Records.
Don Toliver is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.