Near the end of “Alone/EA6,” the two-part closer on Atlanta rapper-singer 6lack’s 2016 debut album “Free 6lack” (pronounced “black”), our host recalls a lesson from the elders of Candler Road in Atlanta’s Zone 6 neighborhood: “You better shine bright when the lights down / Less talk, more show.” Following a string of vague breakup tales and come-ons, it was an apt self-diagnosis. But the track, as the coda for a mostly placeless project focused on asserting independence – creatively, romantically, economically – released after five years in purgatory on Flo Rida’s Miami record label, also suggested a path forward. Having established a brooding (if derivative) sound and mood, perhaps this modest but tasteful young vocalist, then shrouded in face-covering dreadlocks, might color in his character by studying his roots.
Based on title alone, this could appear the promise of 6lack’s new 14-song album “East Atlanta Love Letter.” The project is not, however, a city tribute framed as romance in the tradition of Common’s “I Used to Lover H.E.R.” or Kanye West’s “Homecoming.” Rather, 6lack directs most of his attention to love’s decay, and the moments in relationships when both sides confront the likely outcome. The new father (that’s his one-year-old daughter on the cover) writes with a mature sense of responsibility for such results, but with a heartfelt resistance to letting go. “Sittin’ here patchin’ myself up / Cryin’ over what’s left,” he sings on “Sorry.” Outside of a few rap exercises that reflect on his career, this project consists of love letters to what’s lost or soon will be.
The music, executive-produced by core “Free 6lack” contributors Singawd and Yakob, offers a suitably moody foundation. Indebted to The Weeknd’s original sonic ideas, as well as the more austere work of Clams Casino and Metro Boomin, with its reverb-drenched piano, haunting synth washes, ticking percussion and heavy low-end, the palate conjures a troubadour floating in outer space. Additional vocalists help make things more dynamic, as on the title track, a gorgeous duet with Future, or “Balenciaga Challenge,” which makes good use of Offset’s ad-libs in addition to his standout verse. (Ty Dolla $ign and Young Thug, for their part, contribute uncredited background vocals on lead single “Switch” and “Thugger’s Interlude,” respectively.)
The cavernous sheen also functions to make 6lack’s duds, to which he’s still susceptible, clang even louder. For every three sweet nothings like “Time will never wait on us but it never can age our love” (from “Stan”), there remains a “Life without my love is a slant rhyme / That mean it works out but it ain’t quite,” dulling the moment. 6lack’s handful of raps frequently fail to live up to his more thoughtful touch elsewhere. “Gettin’ bread across the Mediterranean like a pita,” he spits on “Scripture.” He admits, at least, to Drake syndrome in that song’s outro: “We just had to do that. If I don’t rap anywhere on this, people gon’ hate me.”
One can’t help but wonder what 6lack might do with less murky sounds. As popular R&B slowly transitions out of the long shadow cast by “808s and Heartbreak,” the simpler arrangements here stand out for how little they need digital tricks. “Thugger’s Interlude” and “East Atlanta Love Letter” would both work as piano-only ballads. The singer may be clinging to his engineering toolbox in the same way he struggles to forfeit love.