Everyone loves a good story, and August Alsina has quite one to tell. The singer’s rag-to-riches tale is captivating but, as documented on his debut album, Testimony, he could’ve been just another statistic. Luckily for Alsina, rather than ending up six-feet under or behind bars in the mean streets of New Orleans, he ended up at the top of the charts, now being mentioned in the same breath as Chris Brown and Trey Songz.
But what’s so fascinating about Alsina is not just his story, but the complex duality of his artistry. Musically he sits comfortably in both the R&B and hip-hop genres without abandoning one for the other, while on a personal tip he seems to struggle between his roots in the ‘hood and his new uprising in the music industry.
That binary theme is heavily constant on the appropriately titled Testimony, a 14-track confessional of sorts that wheels into vivid, personal accounts of Alsina’s rocky road to fame and, in true male R&B style, endearing odes to the ladies. But most of all, the 21-year-old newbie is honest and wears his rugged heart on his sleeve.
“I’mma tell the truth and the whole truth ‘cause there ain’t no need to lie,” he sings on the album’s opening track “Testify,” a tune that sets the tone for the project’s raw storytelling. In it, Alsina sheds himself of his past – daddy woes, selling drugs, dropping out of school – by laying it all bare, as he croons with a smooth hip-hop sensibility, which is most certainly his signature sound. Though reminiscent of Lyfe Jennings, who arguably perfected the street-singing sound, Alsina’s voice and lyrical content connect in a way that is uninhibited. It’s not contrived for marketing or sales. When you listen you’re intensely drawn in by its grit and soul.
This is most noted in “Make It Home,” where similar to “Testify,” Alsina speaks of his pitfalls. But while he’s made it out the ‘hood, Alsina reveals he’s still haunted by its social trappings. “I’m hoping I don’t have to go back to the trap,” he fears. But just in case, Alsina leaves a list of instructions for his female lover: “tell my momma that I love her, leave flowers for my brother…take some money to my sister, I don’t want her chasing after niggas.” Alsina makes it clear that he’s no different from the dudes he left behind in the ‘hood, who are doing what they have to do to survive. Here he illustrates his inability to accept his newfound social mobility and his unwavering fear of ending up like those who fell before him.
Still, it wouldn’t be a true R&B album without a few tunes for the women. On “You Deserve” and “No Love,” the obvious heartthrob lets it be known that he’s not the settling down type, and cautions one from looking to him for love. However, “Porn Star” and the soulful ballad “Kissing On My Tattoos” are more romantic and meet the album’s baby-making quota, as Alsina moans in falsetto, belting seductive lyrics like “she rides me like a porn star” and “I don’t want nobody else but you kissing on me.”
But the young singer is sure not to alienate the fellas. The album has something for everyone. Even when Alsina’s talking directly to the ladies, male listeners will likely feel a part of the conversation as opposed to an outsider eavesdropping on the experience. Hardcore hip-hop tracks like “FML” with Pusha T, “Ghetto” (featuring Yo Gotti) and the Fabolous-assisted “Get Ya Money” sound specially tailored for the male listener, who just wants to vibe to simplistic beats and synthesizers.
If Alsina proves nothing else with this album it’s that he offers far more dimensions than the trap-soul sound of “I Luv This Shit” that shot him to stardom. Vocally, he’s a bonafide, naturally vocalist, proving he needs no auto-tune to show off his singing chops (though he’s certainly used it), while lyrically he proves that he’s unafraid to go there.
The religious symbolism in the album’s title “Testimony” is telling, as it indirectly alludes to Alsina’s role as the messiah of R&B, a messenger who speaks directly to the people, for the people. His lateral approach to music expression and storytelling is sure to take his career far. However, it remains to be seen whether or not his “realness” will be tainted with the inevitable fame and fortune that will come his way. Only time will tell. But what’s certain is that Alsina is someone with something to say.
His story of being broke, living a life of the streets and losing his brother to gun violence are authentic stories listeners are craving for. “I gave you my testimony when the world wasn’t listening…now that I got your attention let [me] in,” Alsina sings on “Benediction.” It’s pretty safe to say he’s earned the ears of the public…but what he’ll do with them is completely up to him.
–Gerren Keith Gaynor (@MrGerrenalist)