Parlaying creative independence into her best work to date, the R&B star’s latest self-released album is a showcase for her omnivorous tastes and supremely light touch.
For all the indignities that major labels subject R&B artists to—the constant album delays, retoolings, and forced-fit singles—life after the majors is rarely glamorous. Cut off from the resources and promotional budget of a label, many singers fade into B-list obscurity, their best work behind them. It’s a fate Tinashe might have met after she ended her stymying seven-year run with RCA, but instead, she parlayed her independence into the freest, most exuberant album of her career. Revealing a wider range than any of its predecessors, 2019’s exceptional Songs for You bounded between buoyant R&B, spry dance-pop, minimalist trap, Cali funk, and throwback roller skating jams with such capricious glee, it played as if it’d been sequenced by a giant game show wheel.
To the extent that Song for You’s “whatever feels good” approach could be considered a template, Tinashe’s follow-up 333 repeats it, leaning further into the singer’s two great strengths: her omnivorous tastes and her supremely light touch. The outline is the same—brisk songs with lots of movement—but the particulars are even more refined and surprising. “Let Go” introduces the album with a fake-out, a velvety, two-minute neo-soul fantasia that sounds precisely like nothing that follows. “Shy Guy” test-drives a jungle beat for 66 seconds before retiring the idea. The pivots continue one after another, often within the same song. “Small Reminders” is 333’s longest track at four and a half minutes—a veritable Ken Burns documentary by the standards of this album’s fleet pleasures—but it rewards every second, transforming from smoldering jazz into doobie-lighting funk at the flip of a breakbeat.
The album also indulges Tinashe’s growing interest in EDM and IDM. On “Unconditional,” her weightless voice triple axles over an intricate Kaytranada beat that continually folds in on itself. But even that song sounds downright understated compared to 333’s title track, a puzzle box that never stops molting its skin. There’s no chorus, or even a clear throughline, just a cosmic scope and a series of bombastic, staccato movements that keep one-upping each other. The song is a flex, a tease of all the fantastic avant music Tinashe could make if she wanted to.
But it’s clear she’s not interested in that. Whenever 333 threatens to skew too far left of the dial, it snaps back to instant-gratification R&B like “X,” a Hitmaka-produced sheet burner featuring Jeremih, or “Bouncin,” a gleaming, feeling-myself affirmation (“I been sending dirty pics/Hope they make it to the cloud”). As deft as her stylistic experiments are, Tinashe’s default is bright and poppy, and for all the chocolate ganache she puts on display, she doesn’t deny herself penny candy either. The dance workout “Undo (Back to My Heart)” and Rihanna-esque power ballad “The Chase” may not wow with innovation, but they’re both great jams.
Tinashe’s voice glides through much of the record as if she’s smirking at a private joke. Ultimately, it’s that breezy, impish spirit that most distinguishes 333 and its predecessor from her RCA albums. Early in her career, Tinashe was uncomfortably lumped with the era’s alternative-R&B movement and was too often cast against vibey, overly serious production that snuffed out her natural ebullience. With its stodgy interludes and thick ambiance, even her excellent 2014 debut Aquarius occasionally dragged. But 333 never does. It’s Tinashe’s second consecutive triumph, another gregarious rebuke of the notion that R&B has to be difficult or demanding to be transcendent.