Image: Getty

In 2014, two popular mixtapes and a record deal with RCA launched Tinashe into major pop culture conversations. It seemed like she was gearing up for a long and fruitful career, and we began to see tangibles: a critically-acclaimed debut album (Aquarius); a series of noteworthy co-signs (Drake) for her meteoric single, “2 On”; tours with Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj—the whole shebang. The era of Tinashe was approaching, only it never arrived. She never produced another “2 On,” and the road to her sophomore album, Joyride, has been paved with delays and inequities. (As a holdover, in late 2016, she released a digital-only record/mixtape/something, titled Nightride.) RCA prolonged her album’s release for reasons unknown—and Tinashe has given many, many interviews outlining her frustration.

The fact that Joyride is finally here may be a triumph, but the product, outside of its ideation, plays like a collection of almost-hits sequenced for maximum cohesion with an unavoidable disjointedness. It’s an okay record, which may make it a disappointing record if you really wanted Tinashe to win.

Like other famous, talented black women who make pop R&B, Tinashe’s place in mainstream music was and continues to be ill-defined by the industry. Long-festering racial genre delineations have been to blame—since she was never categorized as simply a pop artist, Tinashe found herself boxed into an “alternative R&B” label that never quite fit.

She got to the heart of the issue in an interview with the LA Times last September: “When it comes to black women, people want to put you in these almost race-driven musical genres,” she said. “[Our] songs automatically become ‘urban’ or ‘rhythmic.’ I was creating music that didn’t necessarily fall into what people [considered] black female music—and there was pushback.” That explains her predicament to an extent: as the industry evolved, Tinashe failed to keep up. Now the benchmark for R&B-tinged pop is SZA, whose experimental style has won her broad success and has changed the landscape.

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There are intermittent joys on Joyride. The title track—which Rihanna originally acquired for her 2016 album, ANTI, before Tinashe reclaimed the song—embraces vocal reverb and stringed crescendos. The single, “No Drama,” featuring Offset, details, with excruciating transparency, Tinashe’s frustrations with the music industry through an extremely 2018-branded cool lazy flow. The Little Dragon collaboration, “Stuck With Me,” is three-and-a-half minutes of a looped chorus (more or less, and in a good way) that avoids redundancy and comes off effortlessly chill.

“No Drama” music video

Individually, these songs bang—alone, they’re dynamic, often in subtle ways. But when placed in succession, it’s abundantly clear that Tinashe’s fight for unique self-expression has backfired. Whereas Aquarius had a cohesive, flowing current to it, Joyride registers like a hodgepodge of what Tinashe and her team presumably found to be her most evocative and contemporary songs recorded over the past four years. The vintage “Salt” feels like listening to a different artist entirely. “So Bad” registers like a former Disney star’s first foray into more “adult” material. The onomatopoeia-d “Oh La La” is probably a perfect ’90s R&B throwback, complete with—and overwhelmed by—the gratuitous bed squeaking (?) sample (???) that penetrates the recording (heh), varying in speed and intensity like a real good fuck. Thankfully, the creaking is polite enough to cease, for the most part, when Tinashe’s vocals quick in, but it’s distracting as all hell, the loudest “I fuck” posturing since Taylor Swift started drinking.

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A former colleague once told me Tinashe always appeared angry—beautiful, but frustrated—as if she didn’t want to be there, wherever “there” was. She probably didn’t in that particular capacity—it was her third or fourth on-camera interview in a jam-packed New York City press day—but the co-worker’s language felt particularly damning; it’s not how we tend to speak about white artists. It was a minor remark, subtle enough to dismiss in the moment, but one that speaks to how Tinashe has been perceived and treated as an experimental R&B singer: with excessive criticism tethering her to nebulous, unrealistic standards. What’s closer to the truth is that Tinashe pens chill, sensual songs, and that she’s an artist who was held up by the usual industry hold-ups and Joyride suffered because of them. Maybe it’s better for her career if everyone, including Tinashe, accepted her position as an artist free to explore her potential, outside of expectation or genre.

Joyride isn’t the album that’s going to define her artistry—that one has yet to come—but it is symbolic of endurance. There is potential here, and that’s gratifying, at least.