Back in 2010, I was one of 12 people (or thereabouts) who watched dvsn open for the rapper Shaun Boothe, free of charge, at a poorly promoted show organized by my alma mater, The University of Waterloo. To clarify, this was years before they’d adopted the name dvsn and inked a contract with Drake’s OVO Sound record label. Back then, they were, separately, Nineteen85, an unknown producer whose apparent job was to stand on stage and queue up backing tracks, and Daniel Daley, an unknown singer doing a passable impression of Trey Songz.
Against all the odds, they left an impression on me. Unphased by the lack of audience, they put on a professional show, complete with theatrical elements and technical wizardry. It would have been so easy for them to be jaded, but, instead, they doubled down on earnestness.
A decade later, this palpable earnestness is still the defining quality of dvsn’s music. Their compositions are unabashed, and their lyrics are plain-stated. When Daley sings of yearning, you get the sense he feels it with every fiber of his being. When the production swells with choral arrangements, the nostalgia feels earned.
This underpinning ethos is omnipresent across both of dvsn’s full-length projects to date: the generally accessible SEPT. 5TH, released in 2016, and the comparatively understated Morning After, released the following year. Both projects were cohesive embodiments of this brand, the latter almost to a fault, positioning dvsn at the forefront of an identifiable niche in the marketspace of contemporary R&B.
I have no reason to expect anything different from dvsn’s latest release, A Muse In Her Feelings, out today. I’ll keep an eye out for incremental evolutions in their sound—as an example, the album’s accompanying press release made it a point to specify this is the first time they’ve included features on one of their projects—but otherwise, I get the sense it’ll be more of the same. In either case, I’m excited to dig in and find out.
As always, the format for this 1-listen review is standard: no pausing, no rewinding. Just my gut reactions in real-time.
1. “No Good”
This intro is shimmering like light reflecting off a Swarovski crystal. In a departure from a lot of the music on their last release, Daley’s voice is the clear star of the show. The production is complementing his voice as opposed to vise versa. His upper register is so effortless; it perfectly suits this tortured breakup anthem. And now, a woman is talking about her fear of being vulnerable. What is it about R&B albums and making you feel like you’re eavesdropping on someone’s therapy session? Strong opener.
2. “Friends” feat. PARTYNEXTDOOR
True to its featured guest, “Friends” is chock-full of supple vocal runs and dynamic melodies. It’s not in PARTYNEXTDOOR’s best interests to have to follow Daley so closely, though. Side-by-side like this, Daley’s technical ability underscores the limitations in PND’s vocal range. The textured synths underneath the chorus add a nice weight to the composition. Love the harmonizing on the outro.
3. “Still Pray for You”
We’re in the year 2002 with these guitar strums. dvsn, much like every famous musician, are missing their pre-fame friendships. “My circle is looking more like a dot these days.” Good point, this isn’t just a famous person problem; this is everyone over the age of 27. Christ, this changeup is beautiful. Daley is crooning over a vintage soul sample, and Nineteen85 has inhabited the spirit of Just Blaze. I wish the whole song was the latter half.
4. “Courtside” feat. Jessie Reyez
I’ve never understood why male/female duets are so rare in modern R&B. “Courtside” reminds me of something Jhené Aiko and Big Sean would have put on their Twenty88 project. Reyez is doing something off-putting with her voice, though. The raspy, childish tone she affects is extremely hit or miss, and it’s not working in this instance. It’s so distracting I can’t focus on anything else.
5. “Miss Me?”
I’m not sure if now is the right time for dvsn to embrace the rolling hi-hat sound. “Miss Me?” is poppier than I typically expect to hear from dvsn. If I’d heard this on Justin Bieber’s latest album, it would have fit the aesthetic perfectly. It works here because the hook is sticky, and Daley is selling the hell out of these lyrics, but it’s still a tad formulaic for my tastes.
6. “No Cryin” feat. Future
I love R&B Future. “No Cryin” could have been plucked directly off HNDRXX. The production is so in-step with the contemporary landscape that it sounds more like a Future song featuring dvsn than the other way around. It’s not necessarily an unfortunate departure; it’s just taking some getting used to. Daley wants us to know there’s “no crying in the club.” I’ve heard this sentiment expressed in a lot of songs now. Who are these people who think the club is an appropriate setting for emotional catharsis? I love the chopped-up vocals layered underneath the chorus. They give the song some much-needed depth.
7. “Dangerous City” feat. Buju Banton
This is what I’m talking about! Daley’s falsetto is boundless. I love how subtle the tropical flourishes are. dvsn aren’t pandering to the dancehall trend, they’ve bent the Caribbean aesthetic to match theirs, and the result is a song that’s more than the sum of its parts. Is that Ty Dolla $ign, I hear? I wonder why he’s not credited on the tracklist. [Editor’s Note: Ty is actually credited as the co-headliner here.] His voice is always a welcome addition. I just wish he could bring this same energy to his solo work. Buju Banton sounds great, too. The moment when his rich baritone meets Daley’s falsetto chorus is nothing short of transcendent.
8. “So What” feat. Popcaan
Bouncy warm-weather music that makes me sad that we’re, in all likelihood, going to miss Toronto’s few yearly months of good weather. Listening to Popcaan in a quarantine feels like watching beach volleyball in the Antarctic. He’s gliding across this song like the beat is greased with coconut oil. Another song that feels more like dvsn are the featured guests rather than the star of the show, but it’s hard to complain about a song this pleasant.
A transition so smooth, I hardly noticed it happened. Sequencing has to be one of the album’s greatest strengths so far. In contrast to the last few feature-heavy songs, it’s nice to get the chance to hear Daley shine again. He’s crooning about getting lost in the moment with a subject of his affection—pretty standard R&B fare. “Outlandish” is catchy in an unassuming way. I get the sense I may be surprised to learn one day that I know all the lyrics. I love the way the track transitions smoothly into a bounce at the end—a clever way to transition into the next song.
10. “Keep It Going”
Is this an entire bounce song? Yeah, this is brand new territory for dvsn. It’s jarring, but I like it a lot. “Keep It Going” strikes me as something that would’ve been on Disclosure’s first album. The filter on Daley’s vocals during the chorus is adding a cool texture. Between the upbeat drums and the yearning falsetto, this is ironically a song that someone would cry in the club to. A bit anticlimactic that this never swells into anything more substantial, but I love the breakbeat outro.
11. “Flawless (Do It Well Pt. 3)” feat. Summer Walker
More guitar strums that place us squarely in the early 2000s. Daley is serenading a stripper named Flawless. Not exactly the most original source material, but he’s singing the hell out of it. And now the bounce drums are back! An unexpectedly cool new addition to the dvsn arsenal. Daley and Summer Walker sound great harmonizing together. She’s picking up right where she left off on Over It. Okay, I can’t overstress how gorgeous these harmonies are. I know I’m not the intended audience for this stripper anthem, but I’m loving it regardless.
Another unassuming song. Nineteen85 has noticeably scaled back the ambitiousness of his compositions all across this album, and it’s a blessing and a curse. Daley is filling the vacant space with dazzling vocals, but there’s an intangible zip that’s missing, making “Greedy” a tad forgettable.
13. “Between Us” feat. Snoh Aalegra
A very obvious sample of Usher’s “Nice & Slow.” I like the original so much that I can already tell it’s going to be hard getting my head around “Between Us.” Objectively, I’d love this if it didn’t remind me so much of a superior song. Holy shit, Snoh Aalegra bodied this. She truly “Renegaded” Daley on his song. Coincidentally enough, - Ugh, those feels again, Snoh’s stellar 2019 full-length album, has a lot of spiritual similarities to a dvsn record.
14. “A Muse”
And now this is the same sample Ski Beatz flipped on JAY-Z’s “Dead Presidents.” I don’t know how I’m supposed to hear anything else on this. Again, objectively, this is a clever reinvention, and Daley is singing his heart out, but I can’t hear someone pine about sex on top of these keys. This repurposing of classic samples is only going to become a more common trend the older I get, so I should probably get used to it before I start to sound like a “back in my day” boomer, but I just don’t know how to do it.
15. “For Us”
An unabashed love song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Morning After. Is that some tasteful vocoder I hear on the chorus? Auto-Tune completely took the vocoder’s place in contemporary music, and it’s a shame because the vocoder is so singularly good at creating a throwback vibe. “For Us” is a power ballad at its prettiest. I love how heartfelt Daley sounds on the chorus. The luxurious instrumental outro into the understated guitar solo is the perfect note to end on.
16. “Again” feat. Shantel May
This production is very ‘80s. As if to further drive this home, Nineteen85 just added an obvious homage to the drum fill from Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” As the album’s final song, “Again” is having a hard time following “For Us.” Maybe the first (and only) sequencing misstep on the entire album. I’ve never heard of Shantel May before, but her voice adds a nice touch. Alright, this is swelling into something a lot larger. Electric guitars are wailing gorgeously in the background and some soaring vocals to boot. Love the way this fades out gradually, leaving me with the same shimmering ambiance present on the album’s opener. Solid symmetry.
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on dvsn’s A Muse In Her Feelings:
As it turns out, the expectations I’d crafted going into this album couldn’t have been more off-base. Whereas I said I’d be looking for subtle evolution in dvsn’s trademark sound, they hit me over the head with unexpected forays into New Orleans Bounce.
On Morning After, Daley’s voice was leveraged like an instrument rather than foregrounded atop the production. On A Muse In Her Feelings, it’s clear the duo made a concerted effort to position him as the star of the show. It works, in part, because the pair has simultaneously pivoted to a friendlier, crossover sound. The vocals and production remain stellar, but the sonics are more recognizable within the landscape of today’s popular R&B, as are the song structure, features, and lyrical content.
Where this approach works, is on a song like “Dangerous City,” where dvsn contour their influences around their trademark sound, introducing new sounds into their world, as opposed to the other way around. Where it leaves you wanting more is on “Miss Me?” where the formulaic structure leaves you craving some of the understated elegance present in their previous records.
Overall, though, the album is a resounding success. I need to dive in again to verify, but on the surface, A Muse In Her Feelings has a ton of replay value. I just wish they hadn’t tried to turn “Dead Presidents” into a raunchy sex anthem.