“Fuck with me now.”
The opening line on Sept. 5th, R&B artist and OVO signee dvsn’s debut album, might seem like a classic braggadocio rap lyric on paper. It could evoke the image of a gangster sitting atop a throne or Al Pacino leaning behind a cocaine-covered desk — the kind of images OVO king Drake has been calling up increasingly often as of late. But dvsn has no such pretenses. It’s a plea, not a demand, to the woman he’s singing to. That kind of separation between surface association and reality is at the heart of this release.
Much of this has to do with the style of music dvsn floats around in, that ever broadening space which marries hip hop, electronic, pop and R&B — what some have come to pejoratively term “PBR&B” (after the hipster’s favorite beer). It’s characterized by late night slow jams, stripper love and minimalistic, spacious production. It’s doubtless that dvsn owes much to this Toronto-influenced wave. The group’s producer, Nineteen85, engineered some of the keystone singles in that field (think “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and “Truffle Butter”). However, it distinguishes itself from the swath of midnight acts trying to ride that wave by its trajectory. Where the majority of reductive PBR&B comes from rappers entering the R&B field, dvsn moves in the opposite direction as an R&B group foremost, meeting the influence of hip hop and pop secondarily.
The result is a modern R&B album that exists as a tightrope between inspirations. There’s indie-rock, which manifests itself most clearly on “Angela,” built from indie artist Elliot Smith’s “Angeles,” with a jazz aesthetic brought in for good measure. “Do It Well” sounds like a more nuanced and traditional R&B take on Drake’s “Houstatlantavegas.” Title track “Sept. 5th” is a soulful and far more optimistic reworking of House of Balloons-era The Weeknd. Dvsn’s skill lies in the group’s ability to avoid redundancy in light of this broad lineage.
The clearest example of this is the single “Hallucinations.” The track is a direct affront to claims that this kind of slow, syrupy sound has lost its freshness. The production echoes relentlessly, twirling through the air and grabbing your attention immediately. The singer, whose identity is still a mystery, meets that atmosphere with an equally enthralling croon, sounding reluctant when he admits “I’m losing sleep every night.” Whoever this vocalist is (I speculate it’s Daniel Daley), he has a powerful talent for controlling acute changes in his voice to achieve a commendable emotional range, something that separates the group from artists like PARTYNEXTDOOR and JMSN, who can fall into monotony and often rely far too heavily on their production.
Still, there are moments when Sept. 5th enters the forgettable. “Another One” feels like just that: another one. Among the tightrope of inspirations here, it offers an example of when dvsn can teeter on the edge of average, particularly in the shadow of standouts like “With Me,” “Try / Effortless” and “Hallucinations.”
Some have derided dvsn for living in the shadow of Drake and other such PBR&B titans — now more than ever as an OVO signee. Where the tide started at Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak and swelled to a too-big-to-fail mentality, it’s become easy to shrug off many of its benefactors as fair-weather artists. But that criticism misses the point — for all its influences, dvsn can still inhabit its own world, even if just barely. On Sept. 5th, it works.