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August Alsina’s In-the-Pocket R&B Outshines Its Glitzy Guests on ‘Testimony’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: April 15, 2014
Label: Radio Killa/Def Jam

Last year, cooin’ and oohin’ street dude August Alsina arrived with one of the more mazy and rewarding radio R&B songs in quite some time, “I Luv This Shit.” The focus of his 2013 concept EP, Downtown: Life Under the Gun, and a bonus track on Alsina’s debut album, Testimony, “I Luv This Shit” is an elegantly wobbling wail about drinking and drugging too much. Backed by glitzy yet chintzy horns, it’s was part of 2013’s slop n’ B aesthetic popularized by Mike Will Made It, and by raising the emotional stakes (“I’m way too young to be livin’ like this,” Alsina laments), a coy answer to it, as well.

Testimony builds on the regret-filled R&B template of “Luv.” Alsina’s grim biography is laid out on the syrup-noir title track (absentee dad, dead brother, no options) and expounded on elsewhere (trap blooz number “Make It Home”), then wrapped around choice slow jams (the totally adorable “Kissin’ On My Tattoos”), so it doesn’t get too heavy. At its best, Testimony makes street tales that sound like fuck songs and fuck songs that sound like street tales: Horny, horn-laced “Right There” is actually about recalling moments when things were hopeless; though it sounds like a futuristic club stomper fit for Future, the Yo Gotti-assisted “Ghetto” turns out to be a low maintenance love song about the little things.

These musical sleights of hand make something like “Mama,” a typical apology to moms for doing dirt as well as an ain’t-you-proud declaration that he’s “made it” (simply because he isn’t dead like his brother and has a record out like his heroes, shades of the themes found on Chief Keef’s Finally Rich) feel weighty rather than corny: Alsina consistently goes for specificity over platitudes. And when that track’s soap opera theme piano bumps into closing track “Benediction,” a stirring piece of expensive-sounding gritty gospel, it highlights the rewards of filling the nooks and crannies of one’s major label album with lived in, personal experience.

“Benediction,” though, is bogged down by some blah blah boasting from coke rap wet sandwich, Rick Ross. And that’s about the only problem with Testimony: Now that Alsina is operating in the world of mainstream urban demographic-pandering music, the guests are no longer recruited from the mixtape circuit. Whereas Downtown featured buzzing rappers and cult heroes like Curren$y, Rich Homie Quan, and Trinidad Jame$, Testimony must weather professional (too professional, really) veterans like Ross, Young Jeezy, Pusha T, and Fabolous: guys who appear on damn near everything and contribute next to nothing other than star power.

Usually, in-the-pocket R&B does fine with middling MCs, but Testimony, powered by Alsina’s insider-outsider personality — sensitive romantic with a crime-haunted past — doesn’t need these big dumb lugs for cred, or even menace. Testimony brings rap’s raw nerve detail to the sturdy slow jam, nullifying the need for nods to R&B of the “rap and bullshit” variety.