Over the past decade, hip-hop’s R&B-leaning interlocutors have primarily trafficked in a kind of euphoric subterfuge. Where drugs once served as a source of sensory enhancement, they have been reconfigured in the genre as a pathway, or shortcut, to genuine connection. The result tends to be music with unintelligible emotional stakes. Tortured and lovelorn, rap’s would-be romantics have found themselves in a loop: chasing the fantasy of love as opposed to uncovering anything about its reality.
For the Houston rapper Don Toliver, it’s been a framework for success. An acolyte of fellow Houstonian Travis Scott, he arrived on the scene last year with his debut, Heaven or Hell, and quickly became a standard bearer for the genre’s now dominant sensibility of hazy, dissociated seduction. With his new album Life of a Don, released last week, Toliver provides an abundance of vibes but an all-too-familiar deficit of depth.
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To be fair, this doesn’t necessarily amount to a problem. On songs like “What You Need,” it takes little more than an infectious hook and Toliver’s unmatched vocal register to keep listeners engaged. The problem comes in its repetition. “What You Need” shares a significant resemblance to his debut single “After Party.” Though Toliver is indeed gifted at constructing moods, his new album tends to map well-trodden territory. We’re in the club; we’re up late at night, faded. Rinse and repeat. It’s a motif that informs an overarching sonic sensibility — lush synths and slow-rolling drum patterns drenched in layers of reverb — which, deployed in excess, creates an almost insurmountable distance from the music’s core.
Still, the album does have its share of standout moments. “Smoke,” featuring up-and-coming Houston rapper Hvn and the ascendant Michigan MC SoFaygo, contains an infectiously textured cadence. Hvn’s hushed flow has the relaxed swagger of Pi’erre Bourne, with an added layer of suave charm. Paired alongside Toliver’s vocals, the song successfully creates an alluring juxtaposition of highs and lows, effectively breaking up the album’s otherwise singular mood. The Baby Keem-assisted “Outerspace” is a good reminder of Toliver’s ability to add his own secret ingredient to a straightforward rap banger. The same goes for “You,” where Toliver is joined by Travis Scott. The track finds both artists firmly in their respective lanes. Scott offers up his signature melodic flow, and Toliver matches his bouncy cadence with soaring, acrobatic vocals.
But Don Toliver remains, perhaps intentionally, impenetrably enigmatic. In a culture replete with mysterious superstars, it makes Life of a Don ultimately a bit frustrating. The rapper gestures at moments of self reflection (“I’m the type to talk about my demons and shit” he coos on “Outerspace”), but never gives us more than vague generalizations about a feeling. It’s a shame since Toliver’s voice is so entrancing. His first mixtape, 2018’s Donny Womack, even took its name from the soul singer Bobby Womack, a musician with a similarly engrossing voice. Except unlike Womack and other musicians of his generation, Toliver fits right in with the current brood of artists who conflate style with substance.
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