August Alsina - Testimony

Testimony (Best Buy Deluxe Edition) * August Alsina * Trap&B * April 15, 2014

August Alsina has had a difficult life.  Born in New Orleans and moving to Texas after Hurricane Katrina, he has spend most of his life around drugs.  Both his father and stepfather were crack addicts and, while he did not seem to have interest in using the drug, he did end up selling it for a while.  This led to constant disagreements with his mother and she eventually kicked him out of the house to keep his lifestyle from affecting her other children.  It was too late for his older brother, however, as he was gunned down in 2010.  It was this event that led Alsina to make a change in his life.

One of the other constants in his life had been music.  Inspired by the music of Lauryn Hill he began posting videos of himself singing on YouTube at the age of 14.  While the art seemed to take a backseat in his life to other pursuits, the death of his brother made him commit wholeheartedly to his craft and he moved to Atlanta in 2011, releasing his first (very rough) mixtape in October of the same year.

Now, after releasing five mixtapes and a critically acclaimed EP, he has dropped his freshman project.  But after the life he has led, can listeners expect more than songs about the dope life and bitches?

1.  Testify – The introduction to this album and Alsina is about his life before he made it big and what his experiences taught him.  The lyrics are simple yet engaging, perhaps because there is truth to the story.  This is an unusual step for an R&B singer because most try to start off on a lighter note and save a song like this for the B-side.  But Alsina tells listeners why he begins this way: Imma tell the truth and the whole truth/’Cause there ain’t no need to lie/And I ain’t tryna keep it all inside.  This lets the listener know what they are in for from the rest of this album, honesty.  The production by Knuckle Head is surprisingly elegant for the content.  Starting out with a somber guitar and violins before transitioning to a piano ballad that gets grittier, yet somehow more touching, as it progresses.  Every four bars a new layer is added to the production until it both bumps and soars.  The biggest issue with this track is that the subject matter is the same as the track Downtown that was featured on his preview EP Downtown: Life Under the Gun.  It is a standout track, nonetheless.

2.  Make It Home – Following the theme of life on the streets but switching to personal relationships, Alsina is telling his lady what he wants her to do if he gets killed.  This is an interesting perspective for a song because he holds no animosity to the people who could take his life, seeing as he used to be just like them and could be again.  The production is similar to the first track in that it is a ballad that is heavy on the bass but contains elements of trap music.  Alsina’s vocals are interesting in a good way.  He has the R&B sweetness that makes him able to add the right emotional depth to the track but with an underlying edge that makes it believable when he sings songs like this.  The Jeezy verse fits in well, lyrically, but it has those Jeezy backgrounds that don’t really add anything here.

3.  Right There – This track is another ballad with that same trap production type.  The horns on the track add a little something and change it up just enough to keep you listening.  The concept continues the train of thought from the previous song and he tells the brothers still on the street that he will never forget where he comes from.  It’s Alsina’s vocals that make this track.  Despite the use of autotune in sections, he transitions from his usual tenor to a strong falsetto in an instant, giving the song a realistic conversational tone.

4.  You Deserve – Another ballad that is a little more up-tempo with a screwed opener, the production here highlights the song well but does not distinguish itself all that much from the previous three tracks.  This song has Alsina taking on the persona of man who realizes that he isn’t the right kind of man for his woman (hinting that he is abusive both emotionally and physically).  Again, the concept here is unique and not taken on in a way that seems pandering as much as it does introspective.  Alsina’s voice lifts the track out of its repetitive status by adding a touch of anguish because he is asking her to end it with him.

5.  No Love – It is obvious at this point that Alsina has a way with a mid-tempo ballad and, production-wise, there will not be any straying from those.  He is counting on his voice and lyrical composition to maintain the listeners’ interest.  Lucky for him, thus far, he is managing to do that.  The concept of this song is that he is telling the woman in his life that he is not the type of guy that is going to settle down.  Alsina’s delivery softens a track with a highly misogynistic message to something that women will likely want to listen to over and over again.

6.  Porn Star – There is something about listening to an album by a modern R&B singer and reaching track six before you hit the first real sex song.  The production on this is reminiscent of TLC’s Red Light Special, with ethereal notes and electric guitar riffs weaving their way in and out of the beat.  Alsina rides the song like a vocal dynamo, getting down and dirty on the verses before soaring to heaven about halfway through the chorus on a long, drawn-out ooooooh.  The lyrics here are far more explicit than on any track thus far but, in keeping with the honesty theme, you would not expect a man with his background to avoid crude terms.

7.  FML – This track starts out with Pusha T dropping an excellent verse and setting the tone for the rest of the song.  Wake up feeling like fuck my life/Life’s a bitch/She better fuck me right are the first lines of this song.  Pusha and Alsina go on to articulate the feeling of being stuck even when you’re moving forward.  The harmonies on this song a some of the most lush you will hear from a male singer in recent years and they compliment the song by sounding like a chorus of despair.

8.  Grind & Pray/Get Ya Money – The first part of the song, Grind & Pray, is an attached interlude.  The thumping bassline will rattle your trunk and the windows of every house on the block if you bump this at full volume.  The premise is just what the title state.  He prays that he makes it home alright, but the danger will not stop him from making his money.  While the premise is a bit of repeat for the album, the beat is so nice that you start to wish there was full version of this out there.

The real focus, however, is on the Get Ya Money part of the track, which was included on his The Product 2 mixtape.  Alsina articulates to his lady that is a stripper that he does not judge her because he understands that she is doing what she has to do to survive.  He equates how people view him as a drug dealer and her as a stripper, which is an interesting concept to explore, though he doesn’t do it fully.  Alsina’s voice does not reach the stunning peaks of previous songs and it makes the song a little flat.  The verse by Fabolous also does not completely fit with the concept, as he is talking about the couple’s finances in a balling fashion, not in a struggle fashion.  An okay song, but you might be tempted to skip this one after the opening.

9.  Ghetto – A version of this song was featured on Alsina’s Downtown EP, but that one had a guest verse by Rich Homie Quan and this one replaces him with Yo Gotti.  Honestly, that was a good move.  Quan’s off-key vocals really threw the song off in a way that made you skip the end of the track so you wouldn’t have to hear him.  Despite Gotti’s issues, he drops a solid verse; especially for an opener.  Alsina’s vocals return to their more dynamic state as he works his range in a way that does not overpower the beat and fits the tenor of the song.  This song is essential about that round-the-way girl who knows what his life is about and is down for the ride.  His description of her is one that might make most women cringe though, as it is not the most romantic sounding of compliments.

10.  Kissin’ On My Tattoos – Just like it took six tracks to reach the sex song, it took ten to reach the love song.  In this song, it seems as though Alsina has found a woman that he wants to hold on to simply because of how she makes him feel.  For the first time, he express a pride in the woman he is talking about in a way that is not always exhibited clearly in the other songs.  It is also noteworthy that, this time, it is him that brings up getting serious first and hopes that she’s interested.  Alsina’s vocals are the perfect amount of pleading and vulnerable, and the anguish of this song will get back some of the women he lost on the others.  A standout track.

11.  Ah Yeah – This continues Alsina serenading his female fans.  The track is about a woman that is so beautiful that she entrances every man that sees her, including him.  The production still continues the trap ballad style that is the backbone of this album, but there is more synth on this track than any before it and it adds enough difference to make your ears perk up at the change.  His vocals are good, but don’t really get the opportunity to take off as the song clocks in at just over two-and-a-half minutes.

12.  Mama – The production does a full direction change on this song as it goes unexpectedly into a slightly more pop direction, but not so much that it doesn’t fit in with the feel of the rest of the album.  The premise is simple; he is thanking his mother for all that she has done for him.  His voice is strong here and there is an earnestness to it that makes you realize that of all the women he has sung about on this album, this is the one that means the most to him.  A standout track.

13.  Benediction – The final track of the standard edition, we come full circle with Alsina recounting the things he’s done in his life again.  This time, though, there is a more hopeful tone to it as he is thanking God for the blessings that have come his way.  This doesn’t sound so much like a rehash as it does a change in thinking.  The production helps with the change in mood as the gospel-tinged beatwork adds to the benediction feeling.  Alsina’s voice is strong and this is likely the most expressive he is on the album.  He is aided by a surprisingly on-message Rick Ross, with a verse that add his own story to Alsina’s but continues the theme of the song and album overall.  A standout track.

14.  I Luv This Shit (Bonus Track) – The first song that most people heard from Alsina, it was included on his digital Downtown EP and he has put it here as well.  The song is full of double entendre, which allows him to apply the title to multiple subjects at the same time without it sounding sloppy.  Oddly enough, this is the first track on the album that talks about Alsina taking another man’s woman.  This cannot be understated as it is such a common theme that nearly every song about women makes reference to it.  This is one of the more fun songs on the album, as most of the other tracks had a serious undertone.  Alsina sounds like he is enjoying himself as he sings, although the flow is broken up by a somewhat lackluster verse from Trinidad James.

15.  Numb (Bonus Track) – The DJ Mustard produced track was released as a single in the fall of 2013, but did not make either Downtown or the standard edition of this album.  The reason for why is clear; just like I Luv This Shit, this does not fit the overall theme of the standard edition.  This is a club track, pure and simple.  Meant for getting tossed and jumping on the couches, this is the first up-tempo track on the album.  Alsina manages to lose the sweetness in his voice and let his hard side take over, giving the track the perfect feel.  The B.o.B and Yo Gotti verses are great additions as well, as their bravado matches perfectly with Alsina’s

16.  Grind and Pray [Extended Version] (Bonus Track) – When reviewing the shortened version of this track up above, I said that you would wish that there was a full version of this track out there.  Alsina has anticipated your wish and it is better than you could have imagined.  What initially sounded like a Trap&B beat is transformed into a 90’s style track with Teddy Riley-style background vocals bringing up the rear.  Though his vocals are strong here, Alsina’s adlibs are the highlight of this as the permeate the track with stabs of emotion.  A standout track.

17.  Luv This Shit [Remix] (Bonus Track) – Some people might have heard this last year when it was released shortly after the original version of the track.  Including it here is a great present to fans who want more than a tagged or low-quality version.  The downside of this song is that it loses some of the lyrical quality of the original as it is completely about sex without any double entendre.  Highly misogynistic, this is one that a lot of women are going to skip.  The upside?  The trio of Alsina, Chris Brown, and Trey Songz is a winner and one that should have been saved for a better song.

18.  Back Seat (Best Buy Bonus Track) – The final track of the Best Buy Edition is a flirty little banger about sex in a car.  While this is territory that many other artists have tread, the song still grabs attention thanks to the consistent car/sex metaphor.  The beatwork is what really shines here, doing most of the heavy lifting for Alsina, as his vocals are very minimal.  The production grinds and dips like hydraulics, adding depth to the theme.  Not the best song featured, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by this album.  If anyone has heard the first mixtape Alsina released, you will know how rough he was when he started and how much he has grown as an artist over the last three years.  There is a surprising amount of depth here for someone who is only 22.  His lyrical quality is consistently good and he has an understanding of his own voice that some artists don’t gain until they’ve been in the industry for at least a decade.  The deluxe version is definitely worth a purchase as it gives you a different, less serious side of Alsina and none of the tracks feel like throwaways.  And if you can get to a Best Buy, their exclusive track will be worth the trip.

Rating:  4.0