★★★☆☆
Atlanta-based singer 6LACK, birth name Ricardo Valentine, burst onto the alternative R&B scene in 2016 with platinum-selling singles “PRBLMS” and “Ex Calling,” leading up to his debut album “Free 6LACK.” Accused by fans and critics like Anthony Fantano of being an industry plant capitalizing on the popularity of alternative R&B artists like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and Bryson Tiller, 6LACK rejects these labels on his sophomore LP “East Atlanta Love Letter.”

Anchored by fantastic features from Future and J. Cole, 6LACK reminds his fans of his talent and proves his critics wrong by putting out his most consistent and understated project to date. 6LACK takes a more personal approach on this LP in both songwriting and vocals, with airy and atmospheric trap-based beats that establish a mood and never let up.

The LP opens with the three of the best tracks on the album, anchored by the titular track featuring Atlanta trap king Future. 6LACK heavily sampled Future’s “Perkys Calling” on his debut single “Ex Calling,” so this track represents 6LACK’s career coming full circle — collaborating with the artist who gave him his initial burst of fame. 6LACK and Future take turns singing and rapping over a soft beat, composed primarily of hi-hats and piano, with deeply personal and emotional vocal inflection that talks of lost love and the pain it inflicts on each artist.

The message of the titular track underscores the subject matter of “East Atlanta Love Letter” — the pain of loving someone, the mistakes 6LACK has made in his relationships and his venture into fatherhood, which plays off the album art featuring Valentine and his son.

On “Sorry,” 6LACK croons “Can find me somewhere writing when I’m wrong,” playing off the phrase “righting your wrongs” to emphasize the personal nature of this LP in contrast to his debut album “Free 6LACK.” Valentine successfully brings listeners into his world, inviting them to connect with the struggles that fame and success have brought into his love life.

The other high point of the LP is “Pretty Little Fears,” featuring J. Cole. The North Carolina rap superstar has notably shown an aversion to features in the last few years, both on his own albums — three of which have gone platinum without any features — and on other artists’ songs, as he only has featured on eight tracks since 2016.

Securing a Cole feature is a major cosign for the burgeoning 6LACK, and the collaboration doesn’t disappoint. Each artist raps about his relationships — 6LACK talks about his struggle with the mother of his child, while Cole raps about his love and respect for his wife. The two spit over an atmospheric beat by T-Minus, who is known for his collaborations with Drake and Kendrick Lamar.

The fact that the two best songs on the “East Atlanta Love Letter” rely heavily on their star features underscores one of 6LACK’s primary shortcomings — his inability to hold up a stellar track without help. Though some of the better tracks on the LP feature 6LACK without any other artists, reading into the lyrics of tracks like “Let Her Go” and “Switch” reveal deficiencies that are rarely made up for with catchy hooks or singing ability.

The tracks on the latter half of the album are also much less notable than those in the first half, blending together almost seamlessly and doing little more than reemphasizing the mood that the first half of the LP carefully cultivated. Tracks like “Nonchalant” and “Seasons,” which features an underwhelming Khalid verse, are unremarkable and feel like filler added to pad an otherwise short track listing. The Khalid-assisted “Seasons” and “Balenciaga Challenge,” featuring Offset of Migos fame, are half-hearted attempts to break up 6LACK’s monotony on the second half of the album that end up mostly falling flat.

Nevertheless, “East Atlanta Love Letter” serves as 6LACK’s best effort to date and furthers his position as one of alt R&B’s most promising up and comers. On “Scripture,” 6LACK raps that he is an “R&B n—a with a hip-hop core,” perfectly describing himself at the forefront of one of the most popular and beloved genre-blending movements in contemporary music.

Alt R&B is currently in vogue and is the primary reason for 6LACK’s popularity. Other, more successful alt R&B artists, like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, realized the genre’s limited lifespan and quickly pivoted towards different styles that would help them maintain commercial viability. For 6LACK to become the star he envisions, he needs to challenge himself creatively and push musical boundaries.

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