It’s been quite a journey for 6LACK, the 24 year old Atlanta based artist, given his past travails. Having originally signed in 2011, 6LACK went from rap battles to label battles in the space of a few months as his new masters attempted unsuccessfully to pigeon-hole him into a box he was always going to be too large a talent to fit into comfortably. The intervening 5 years have allowed 6LACK to meticulously hone his sound into a melange of uplifting hope coupled with bleak melancholia. In short, this is what happens when you let an artist stew in their own creative juices for half a decade. As of today, he can finally kick back, open a couple of cheeky Dr Peppers and bask in the acclaim that is sure to follow. As the album title poignantly reminds us, he is finally free.
FREE 6LACK is a remarkable piece of work, part rap, part R & B with a smidgen of soul for good measure with a lyrical content wholly surrounding the theme of freedom; either from his label or from past relationships. However, what sets 6LACK apart isn’t necessarily his lyrical content although that can be interesting on occasion; anyone who spits out “I got real shit to stress about girl/I ain’t worried about shit” is hardly in line for an Ivor Novello. No, what marks this album out as one of my favourites of 2016 is the haunting backing which underpins a vocal delivery which can only be described as languid.
Each of the eleven tracks showcased on FREE 6LACK comes with its own composite machine-tooled electronic wizardry, the sound is just as much a draw as the man himself. If Jon Hopkins or James Blake had released this standard of stark minimalism we would be hailing it as a sure-fire Mercury Prize winner. The album glides along majestically on a wave of sublime beats and intricate production and I can’t help but wonder how many times in the preceding five years they have been re-visited, amended and polished, You could hand me an album full of the backing tracks on show here and I would probably love you forever. Of course, this just serves as a perfect canvas for 6LACK to weave his stories of lost loves, failed relationships and irritating hangers-on which provide an intimate view of life in the crawler lane when you’re trying to make it big.
The pace is unhurried, most of the time 6LACK has the sound of someone who has just crawled out of bed and stumbled upon a microphone and you rarely get a sense of anger, just frustration, bewilderment and disappointment. Take ‘Ex Calling’ with it’s simple refrain “I can see my ex calling/why the fuck my ex calling?” which sounds bland written down but hums with desperation when you listen. Similarly, the album closer is the nine minute (yes nine minute!) ‘Alone/EA6’ which descends into stream of consciousness caution about the industry. The real jewel in the crown, however, is ‘PRBLMS’, a track clearly penned during the great vowel theft of 2015 and which has already racked up over 5 million listens on Spotify. It encapsulates everything there is to like about 6LACK as he pours his heart out over yet another doomed relationship, struggling to comprehend what has happened on this occasion.
As a 49 year old white man who grew up in rural Lincolnshire, I am hardly the target demographic for young, black American rap artists. But when the artist in question is able to articulate the contents of their heart so painfully and hauntingly then I sit up and take notice. Love/freedom, or the lack of it, is a universal concept for us all. 6LACK may just have invented a new language with which to tell an old story.
FREE 6LACK is released on 18th November on LVRN