When it comes to romance, we often detach our thoughts from reality. Naturally, the dream comes first. Love begins as a fantasy.
In music, especially the R&B genre, romance maintains a fairy tale sensibility. Club dance floors will suddenly become a place for lovemaking. Obsessive passion becomes a drug-like addiction. We live in laps, shea butter helps to make babies, and every night could be The Night. There is no better escape for hopeless romantics than love-struck albums like Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book or Whitney Houston’s I’m Your Baby Tonight.
With love-enthusiasts like Daniel Caesar, Sabrina Claudio, and Leon Bridges giving contemporary R&B their slice-of-life, the genre has maintained a fresh kind of romanticism that teeters between the real and surreal. For example, Caesar's “Who Hurts You?” is about a magical evening at a strip club; he’s as captivated with a pole dancer named Priscilla as Ella Mai is with her love interest on her GRAMMY-nominated, 5x platinum single “Boo’d Up.” It’s how these artists document infatuation with stories of faultless interactions that make their songs dream-like.
Such is not the case for 6LACK. The R&B playboy from East Atlanta is a writer, but he isn't idealistic.
Take “PRBLMS,” 6LACK's 2016, GRAMMY-nominated breakout single. The song begins with a woman accusing the 27-year-old star of lying. From there, 6LACK sings of all the obstacles that are mounting between them. Although he’s the one venting, he doesn’t overlook his contributions to their issues—he’s self-aware. The woman is attractive—6LACK provides this detail in the first verse—but the superficial isn’t enough to excuse the elephants in the room.
“PRBLMS” is a song about conflict, not compassion; a song about life, not love; R&B, but from a realist perspective.
“But how the fuck can you hate me? When I ain't did shit, but be the real thang” —6LACK. “PRBLMS”
Lying is a recurring subject in 6LACK’s music. When two people are intertwined romantically, trust becomes an essential factor. On “Loyal,” an impressive loosie from 2016, the LVRN signee creates a setting where loyalty disrupts a promising union. It’s masterful how, without giving her a voice, 6LACK gives the woman in his story a tangible presence.
6LACK details how she attempts to sneak in his phone, an effort motivated by her insecurities. The lyrics then turn to him, swearing his loyalty through actions and sentiments; there’s a comfort to his truth. He sings knowing there are no wrongs for her to find. All he asked of her is, “What about you?”—three words that say more than “I love you” ever could.
There’s a romanticism within loyalty that 6LACK willingly disregards. Had his subject matter rewarded faithfulness instead, the song would’ve been received differently by listeners. A lighter, more optimistic approach can be the difference between selling a relationship dream or showing the ugly truth. Are you “Crazy In Love” or “Love Is a Losing Game”?
Another song in 6LACK's catalog that documents how insecurities affect a relationship is “Luving U,” a standout selection on his 2016 debut, FREE 6LACK. Once again, the female subject is without a voice, but the storytelling gives her a stable appearance. We are shown their problems vividly; there is love here, but it’s crumbling. “You want me to be a pretty liar so bad,” 6LACK says with slick sincerity.
The song doesn’t end with an Eminem-approved murder or a melodramatic confession of eternal love. That’s not how 6LACK reacts. Emotions never get the best of him. Every word the man born Ricardo Valentine sings, raps, and speaks is delivered with a cool-headed frankness. He presents as an unattached journalist who only cares about documenting the facts of love—nothing more, nothing less.
With that in mind, it's hard to miss the emotional maturity present throughout 6LACK’s 2018 sophomore album, East Atlanta Love Letter. He’s more tender, unpacking romantic scenes with an attractive candor. Celebrity changed his social status and with fame comes a new set of problems. On album opener “Unfair,” 6LACK closes the first verse by saying, “I'm stuck between what I love and who I love, and I know it's unfair.” That unfortunate twist of faith weaves through the music. It comes up again on the album's ninth track, “Disconnect”:
“Love is not struggling to tell you 'I love you' / Or you saying music above you / I do this shit here 'cause I need / I need you, but you couldn’t see” —6LACK,“Disconnect”
Failure isn’t sexy, and admitting wrongs and facing weaknesses aren’t themes that cause women to throw their panties on stage. But while there are moments on the album—like the title track collaboration with Future and the J. Cole-featured “Pretty Little Fears”—where 6LACK isn’t critical of love, still, neither song creates an idealistic image of relations.
It’s not until we reach “Stan,” the album’s outro, that 6LACK finally pens a dream. He doesn’t want just any love, but the same love a stan shares for their favorite musician. “Stan” doesn’t acknowledge what could go wrong, and there is no thought of how unfaithfulness or insecurities could ruin this forever kind of love—which makes the opening lines of “Unfair” even more striking when the album repeats:
“Hope my mistakes don't make me less of a man” —6LACK, “Unfair”
Love cannot be always and forever because mistakes happen. Somewhere, somehow, we act out in ways that we cannot amend. 6LACK writes love songs with his mistakes intact. “I’m an R&B nigga with a hip-hop core,” he raps on “Scripture.” The statement is a nod to his hybrid style of singing and rap, but it also draws a parallel between rappers and his dedication to realness. Rap comes with an expectation of authenticity. Rap is supposed to be real.
Although he hangs his hat on his singing talents, 6LACK hasn’t allowed R&B to become a gateway to fantasy. He isn’t using his pen to portray love through a perfect lens. That’s why his music is relatable. It's filled with the pitfalls from both men's and women's perspectives. Someone is always at fault; there’s a rationale for why love is withering.
There will always be songs that highlight love without the blemishes and scars—a perfect kind of love. They’re necessary. Adults, much like children, need their fairy tales. But there is also room for the love that is unfortunate and decaying. For love, that is real.
6LACK is real.
By Yoh, aka South Atlanta Wordsmith, aka @Yoh31