When Drake says something, I’ll listen. Partially because I’m a leech addicted to the media cycle of celebrity. But also because he’s earned it. Nearly every move he’s made since 2011 has been a bold step that’s left either footprints or reverberations. And beyond his own music, he’s a proven tastemaker, picking the Weeknd, A$AP Rocky, iLoveMakonnen, and D.R.A.M. out of the woodwork.
But being the godfather means little if you don’t have a Michael Corleone, and Drake’s first proteges from his label OVO to step up so far—the headache-inducing PartyNextDoor and the lukewarm Majid Jordan—have fallen flat. The latest OVO hypebeast is dvsn, an R&B duo, and it’s easily the worst of the bunch. Their debut album, “SEPT. 5TH,” came out this week, and is a one-track-minded wannabe soul album that’s an affront to babymaking music everywhere.
And it sucks to write stuff like this, because dvsn is two homegrown Toronto kids, the type of underdogs you want to root for. Their existence is a rejection of A&R big label machinery. And blogs have been swept away by their promise: of earnestness and passion, of a genuine, cutting-edge, genre-blurring movement up north. We all want to believe that anonymous genius can be plucked out of the city streets; that chasing trends lets us find interesting stuff faster than everyone else; that now is truly a time to be alive.
But dvsn is a case of coolness being mistaken for artistry. “SEPT. 5TH,” is maybe the thirstiest album I’ve ever heard. It craves sex as lustily as it craves musical validation: it seeks to thrust itself in an R&B tradition while capturing the current electronica-driven zeitgeist. But the music is flaccid, the lyrics are tactless.
The best artists, from Sly & the Family Stone to D’Angelo to Sade, have used sex music as a path to exploring other things: emotional intimacy, or black power, or self-doubt, or fundamental change. But when dvsn talks about sex, they’re talking about sex. When they’re trying to use metaphors to talk about sex, they’re just talking about sex. “Sometimes we take our clothes off, find the naked truth;” “We’ve crossed the line tonight”—are some of the more interesting lyrics on a project filled with “Fuck me nows,” “out in, out ins,” “you do it wells.” They talk about sex in the same tone, one position over and over, without mystery or allure, finding nothing below the lyrical surface.
Meanwhile, the musical arrangements scream, “this is music to fuck to! Please please fuck to this!” There are breathy harmonized female backup singers, delicate guitars, atmospheric swells, hyper-tactile hi hat action, plenty of low end. There are NOT pockets that groove, guitar licks that get stuck in the brain, playful interaction between the rhythm section parts, or really anything that actually feels soulful or engaging. It’s babymaking music made in vitro, with all the right ingredients but no core. It amounts to a bewildering paradox: the overbearing horniness, combined with the musical sterility, means you’d never put this record while not having sex, but you’d never put this record on while having sex either.
Who’s doing dvsn’s thing better than them right now? Well, Tei Shi, JMSN, and Jeremih come to mind. But there’s another unabashed sex album that came out this week, that runs antithetical to dvsn in almost every way: Zayn’s “Mind of Mine.” While dvsn is essentially anonymous, Zayn is disgustingly famous; Zayn has been an industry shill for years, while dvsn are musicians’ musicians; dvsn can aim for a smaller, more eclectic audience, while Zayn has to appease the general radio. I came into “SEPT. 5TH” planning to love it, and into “Mind of Mine” planning to hate it. The reverse happened. Zayn’s remarkable debut has narrative and conflict, stylistic departures, poetry, mood swings. It presents a full-bodied, mesmerizing portrait of a 23-year old man who has led a singular life.
It might be unfair to put David against Goliath. But really, who is who in this situation? The reigning hip hop tastemaker should present an album that’s far more forward-thinking and shrewd than the boy band graduate. We’ve arrived at a delightful and confounding place in the music world right now, where the walls between bedroom and major label studio are smashed, and the cool kids aren’t the cool kids anymore, unless they work for it. And OVO, which is supposed to be the real on the rise, is trending in the wrong direction. “Views from 6” can’t come soon enough.