“But I'm a hypocrite, 'cause here I am with another slow song.” —6LACK, “Thugger Interlude.”
Success is terrifying. Attention is terrifying. Hopes and dreams are terrifying. Suddenly, every choice made and move plotted is so precious. Suddenly, everyone wants to know about “next.” Namely, will next be as successful as now? It better be, it could be—and if music worked perfectly linearly, it always would be—but all we can do is hope for the best. This is the internal monologue for every artist that has struck gold with their debut. This is the rising pressure felt when they realize they must carry the weight of that gold over the finish line of their sophomore albums. In the face of potential failure, we have the ever-deadening notion of the sophomore slump.
Without naming names, fans and artists alike can describe the sophomore slump as a heavy and rehashed slog. Albums that fall victim to the sophomore slump aren’t simply boring or poorly made, they are tired and droning. To put it colorfully: you can only juice a fruit once. On the second go, you’ll be drinking all rind, and rinds are bitter. There’s the fear: artists who debut strong have a choice to make. They can either chance it and try to get some juice from their old fruit, juice a new fruit of the same variety, or they can venture outward and bring something wholly new to their audience.
In the case of Chicago’s Noname and Atlanta’s 6LACK, neither artist reached backward and as much is evident in the quality of their respective sophomore albums, Room 25 and East Atlanta Love Letter. They did, however, differ in their methods to evade the sophomore slump. While Noname stepped outside of the comfort of 2016’s Telefone and found some new fruit to juice, 6LACK picked up a fresher version of his 2016 fruit. The result is two albums that are sweet and satisfying. The result is two critically successful albums—that is, albums that are successful in a vacuum and also in comparison to their precursors. Most importantly, the success of these sophomore records proves that all you need to overcome sophomore slump is a little bit of love and a whole lot of hunger.
Approaching the sophomore record, artists are understandably endowed with fear, and for Noname that fear is rooted in Imposter Syndrome. “Probably my biggest fear is that Telefone was a fluke,” she told Rolling Stone. “I have this fear that they’ll be like, ‘We knew she wasn’t that good.'” Noname’s fear is reasonable. A record like Telefone, one so special, carefully crafted, and tender, feels like a once-in-a-lifetime affair. Yet, what Noname clearly overlooks is that to have a once-in-a-lifetime project, you must be a once-in-a-lifetime artist, and with that, Room 25 was the blessing hip-hop needed; it did not disappoint.
Instead of being crushed under the weight of Telefone’s gold, Noname bucked her fears from the first minute of Room 25, rapping “Y'all really thought a bitch couldn't rap, huh? / Maybe this your answer for that” with a wonderful gusto. “Y’all,” of course, is just as much her imagined inner critics as it is any tangible naysayers. Later, on “Blaxploitation,” Noname gives even more body to her fears (“Maybe I'm a hypocrite, maybe I'm hypochondriac / I'm struggling to simmer down, maybe I'm an insomni-black”), but it is because of her lean into wit that she overcomes. The Noname of Telefone was witty, true, but she was lacking the chutzpah that Phoelix’s frenetic and jazzy production bore out of her.
Yes, Noname used her fear as fuel on Room 25, but she also made the wise choice to hit the gas into uncharted territory. The soft-spoken “lullaby raps” that stole our hearts on Telefone, like all things, have a time and place and expiration. On Room 25, Noname is more assured and forceful than ever. Her candid jeers and boasts about her sexuality—and using protection, because Fatimah is for the children—may come as a shock to fans who love the gentle whisper of Telefone, but such is the risk you take when reaching for new fruit. Of course, everyone has a natural fear of change, but often where there is risk, there is grand reward.
On Room 25, Noname grew and she was not afraid to share her growth with the world. Of course, discussing death, Chicago, and her personality anxieties is not untread waters for Fatimah, but still, there is a decided and welcome variety to Room 25, a punch and spryness that underscores the weight of Noname’s writing. Her collaborators are light, and the ease of a nickname like “Smino Grigio” making it onto wax only further cements that Fatimah has come into her own on this album. She could not have made another Telefone, because she is no longer that woman, and that is a good thing.
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Noname may have worried that Telefone’s success was dumb luck, but beneath that was also the worry that as luck would have it, fans would not accept her for who she became. Yet, those fears of failure began and ended with Telefone, and as such, she was able to juice a brand new fruit. Sure, it’s still juice that we’re drinking at the end of the day, but now fans have a new favorite flavor.
In the case of 6LACK, we’re not sipping on something new, but we are drinking something fresher and far more potent. Two years ago, 6LACK found freedom, and his growth on East Atlanta Love Letter has evidenced itself by way of comfort and revelry. The dreary and confounding boom of EALL is familiar ground for 6LACK. His emotional torment and sorrow is as winding and steely as it ever was, yet his vocals are far punchier and the goosebumps come sooner from the moment we press play. As DJBooth’s own Yoh Phillips put it, “Consider East Atlanta Love Letter a familiar house with a brand new interior. It’s the recording artist version of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”
Truth be told, 6LACK could have remade FREE 6LACK and heard little pushback from fans. His genre is highly marketable and people flock to his voice in droves. Yet, 6LACK refused to be complacent. The fire of FREE 6LACK is gone on East Atlanta Love Letter, and this is not a bad thing. Instead of trying to recreate what once was, 6LACK embraces who he is and where he has arrived since becoming a father and processing his emotions. There is no more rage in 6LACK’s heart. In place of rage, we find 6LACK writing the best and most literally visceral songs (“Sorry,” “Stan”) of his career. From the crispness of the vocals to the smart use of features, 6LACK sounds decidedly more himself (“Balenciaga Challenge,” “Nonchalant”) than he was on his debut.
In so many ways, then, East Atlanta Love Letter is an embrace of presentness. 6LACK is using his sophomore album to declare that he has not only arrived but that he is comfortable and ready to grow from contentment, not conflict.
Just as Noname openly admitted she was entering Room 25 with a lack of confidence, 6LACK attested on Twitter that confidence and a disconnection from reality are the hardest parts of making a compelling sophomore album. He wrote: “if you figure out how to stay grounded, hungry, and inspired then you have nothing to worry about,” and on East Atlanta Love Letter, he did not simply double down on his identity. Rather, 6LACK took the essence of who he was and lacquered himself brand new. In continuing to explore himself and the sounds that work, 6LACK was able to move with sincerity, and that sincerity was a byproduct of his staying grounded and his hunger, and that sincerity is why East Atlanta Love Letter is no slog of a sophomore record.
Where Noname brought in new sounds to address the themes she knew best on Room 25, 6LACK stayed in the same sonic realm while sharpening his pen and mastering the art of suspension on tracks like “Loaded Gun” and “Pretty Little Fears.” Noname could have easily released Telefone 2, to check and see if her fluke prediction was true, but then she would not have released a sincere body of work. The same could be said for 6LACK, who grew within his established microcosm, not away from it. He could have easily made a hard pivot to pop or jazz, but that would have been just as insincere as Telefone 2.
Instead, both artists batted back the sophomore slump by embracing their growth and grounding themselves in their respective journeys. Besides, if there's one thing we've learned from Noname and 6LACK across their two records, it's that they're two of the sincerest artists out.
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