The central theme of Tony Shhnow’s dozen-plus mixtapes and albums is constant effort. “I want this shit more than anyone,” he declared on 2021’s “Want It,” a grindset ethos reinforced by the titles of releases like “No Holidays,” “Can’t Sleep,” Kill Streak, and Plugg Motivation. But Shhnow’s relentless exertion yields little on Love Streak, a new R&B-inspired album on which he talks about love like he skimmed an Axios article before walking into the booth.

Love Streak is supposed to showcase Shhnow’s more sensitive side through songs about romance and its complications, but he sounds as though he’s never even been on a date. For inspiration, he explained, he watched “love movies” like Poetic Justice and The Notebook and “would take bubble baths, light candles, and listen to 48 Hz music and shit like that.” That crash course in deeper feelings conveys the extent of his investment. Instead of grounding his writing in his chosen topic, Shhnow cuts and pastes romantic signifiers into non sequitur punchlines.

The resulting music is empty and often nonsensical. The disembodied women Shhnow invokes across the album amount to a word cloud from a porn site search bar: “thick,” “Spanish,” “sisters.” Though all these ladies are inexplicably horny for him, they lack personalities, jobs, and even home states. “She from up North, got an accent,” Shhnow says of one lover on “Control Issues.” Another sounds like a malfunctioning fembot on “Need,” offering a truly inhuman string of stock pleas: “She in my ear saying/‘Touch me, tease me/Feel me, please me/Free me, heal me/…Somebody save me.’”

Moving away from plugg, which softens trap bustle with whimsical 16-bit melodies seemingly ripped from a JRPG battle theme, Shhnow opts for production designed to evoke the tension and catharsis of quiet storm. He’s rapped over these kinds of arrangements before, but this time the choice of R&B is more intentional, positioned as a natural soundtrack to the workings of the heart: “Women are always listening to like R&B and watching love movies and Casablanca,” he’s observed. “I tried to go into their world so I could really understand how to speak on some of these topics.” But despite plush standouts like “Control Issues” and “On the Street,” the mood of seduction and longing feels strained. Women-led R&B groups like SWV and Kut Klose are sampled perfunctorily, their songs barely tweaked or reimagined. “Unordinary Drugs” turns Sade’s “Ordinary Love” into a bass-heavy clunker that sounds like a bungled karaoke round. 

You could choose to ignore the tender conceit and think of Love Streak as “Tony Shhnow talks his shit over R&B-type beats,” but that would require his flexes to be distinct or entertaining. Though Shhnow imagines himself as a chameleon like his idols Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, in practice, most of his lines are just dopey puns (“I smoke on this kryptonite, but she say I’m superior”) or boasts that wouldn’t be memorable even if he were rapping over his standard trap and plugg fare. “If getting money illegal, I promise/The president ain’t thinking pardoning me,” he raps on “Sometimes, Pt. 2.” What? 

Typically, when rappers turn to R&B for an entire album, they use the melodrama and vulnerability of the genre to expand their songwriting. Chief Keef’s disarmingly tender Thot BreakerFuture’s gently toxic HNDRXX, and Ghostface’s effusive Ghostdini are all journeys of self-discovery that unlock new flows and personas. T-Pain’s solo debut Rappa Ternt Sanga is perhaps the pinnacle of the genre, transforming him into the stripper-loving robot casanova that he couldn’t be as part of harder-edged group Nappy Headz. Love Streak offers no such reinvention; Shhnow, ever the workman, just punches in and out. In the end, it really is a grind.