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August Alsina, ‘Testimony’ [ALBUM REVIEW]

August Alsina
Def Jam

There’s no church in these streets, but August Alsina has found the perfect space for confession. His debut studio album, ‘Testimony,’ set to drop on April 15, gives listeners a glimpse into his unvarnished melodic reflections on sex, drugs and trap glamour. The project follows a tried and true freshman formula: a lyrical diary of sorts, rife with material about the highs and lows of a hustler turned recording artist.

August Alsina’s style, lyrical content and overall attitude as expressed on this album reflect a rapper trapped in the body of an R&B singer. The New Orleans-bred crooner eschews his genre’s ties to sentimentality, romance and or anything else soft, opting for the path of an MC tangled in a happy web of paper chasing, ephemeral highs and menage-a-trois. Even his more sobering lyrics — which focus on the loss and absence of family members or the plight of an artist staying authentic — employ a grit not ordinarily associated with R&B.

Alsina’s rich timbre and genre bending implies an influence of esteemed hip-hop singers such as R. Kelly, Jaheim and Trey Songz (the latter of whom he has already fostered beef with — another sign of his penchant for playing the role of a rapper). The big-name guest features on the album (Jeezy, Rick Ross) do exactly when they intend to — add muscle, while others fall short in terms of relevance. With production by Knucklehead, Eric Hudson and Drumma Boy, to name a few, the collection of mostly mid-tempo tracks are infused by ample piano melodies and riffs that add tenderness and depth to Alsina’s edge.

‘Testimony’ opens with an introductory manifesto, ‘Testify’ in which Alsina notes the death of his brother, an event which fueled his desire to pursue his dreams, as well as wealth in all forms. The singer moves from confessions to promises, bringing much of his signature mixtape versatility. ‘Make it Home’ featuring Jeezy, one of the album’s singles, rides the airwaves on the strength of Alsina’s declaration of a hustling martyr. Over a blues guitar-spiked beat by the Featherstones, he imagines consequences of a deal gone wrong. “Take some money to my sister / I don’t ever want her chasin’ after n—-s,” he pleads.

‘Right There’ follows suit, leaning on the theme of authenticity. On a jam that speaks with empathy, Alsina reminds listeners that crossing over into a world of good champagne and steady checks from Def Jam doesn’t diminish the struggles and triumphs he encountered in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. “I used to have fam in the Florida projects, which is why I’ll never forget,” Alsina sings of the once crime-ridden neighborhood, demolished after Katrina in efforts to gentrify the section of the city.

And just like New Orleans itself, Alsina moves from one side of the spectrum to the other on songs like ‘You Deserve’ and ‘No Love,’ where the album transitions from business to pleasure — or lack thereof. Strip club synths and motifs of detachment arise on tracks like the latter (produced by Drumma Boy) where Alsina succinctly clarifies the difference between love and sweaty lust. Reminiscent of Lloyd and 50 Cent circa 2010, ‘No Love’ claims a very “I wish I could be here in the morning but I won’t” sentiment.

‘Porn Star,’ however, boasts a more playful side of a no-strings-attached deal. This track is the album’s ‘Little Red Corvette’ in terms of unabashed sexual bravado. “On the bar, on the stairs, on the bed,” Alsina offers. R. Kelly, The-Dream and even Trey Songz might agree that a track like this might be cliche but serves as a ratchet rite of passage.

Alsina wins on ‘FML’, where Pusha T assists in contemplating the pitfalls of commercial success. “Even when I’m up, I’m feeling down,” he sings, voicing the trepidation he feels while exploring his own success. Fabolous is a breath of fresh air on the more upbeat ‘Grind & Pray / Get Ya Money’, a reincarnated version of a track from Alsina’s ‘The Product 2′ Mixtape. In a seamless transition from one section of the song to the next (a la Yoncé), Fab and Alsina give props to a stripper on this debatable tribute to feminism, championing her choice to make a sound living by whichever means she feels empowered.

Catchy yet fluffy hooks weave through ‘Testimony,’ more so on tracks like ‘Numb’ and ‘Ghetto’ featuring Yo Gotti. On the Jasper Cameron-produced ‘Kissing on My Tattoos,’ the singer discusses permanence — not of a long-lasting love but instead, settling into the idea of just one woman’s lips on his body. At this point in the album, Alsina has taken listeners so deep into his world of transience that a song about teetering on the edge of  commitment seems worthy of walking down the aisle to.

While a few other tracks on the album embody the hustle, party and pleasure principle, ‘Benediction’ featuring Rick Ross resonates because of Alsina’s raw and austere honesty. Transported from the club to the choir, Alsina sings, “I pray, free me from my demons” as he sinks into an emotional pulpit with an air of celebratory retribution. In a sea of all-too-familiar beats that we seem to have heard before, ‘Benediction’’s  tambourine-injected sound compensates.

“I get emotional about my s—,” Alsina says about the stories he chooses to tell on ‘Testimony.’ While there’s no such thing as too passionate for a hip-hop-influenced singer, he teeters on the edge of Drake-ness. The collection of songs serves as an indicator of the current state of R&B — beats worthy of more gyration than reflection accompanied by subject matter that fits according to lifestyle. Fellow artists will relate to Alsina’s descriptions of the creative struggle while other motifs of new wealth and fast cars (both literal and metaphoric) seem flimsy. The project overall is versatile if not a bit bipolar, swaying from lyrics of redemption to projected images of strategically tatted models ready for anything, and back again.

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