dvsn make bedroom jams passionate again on "Sept. 5th."
Somewhere along the way, mainstream R&B's relationship with sex changed. It's still a central theme in the vast majority of the genre, but the offhand, casual way in which it's usually referenced these days stands in sharp contrast with the reverence it was awarded up until the mid-2000s. This isn't a question of morals, though it may seem that way, because even if it was a known Lothario like R. Kelly singing about pleasures of the flesh on "Bump N' Grind" in '93, he made it sound like a holy pursuit.
This tradition of singing about boning like it's the utmost sacrament dates all the way back to Ray Charles' 1954 hit "I Got A Woman," a reworked version of the gospel standard "It Must Be Jesus" that caused a ton of controversy for its secular appropriation of a worship hymn. Lyrics from the song, such as "She saves her lovin'/Early in the morning/Just for me/Oh yeah," seem positively tame by today's standards, but at the time, they were considered "The devil's words," according to the song's producer, Jerry Wexler. Sex continued to be sung about as if it was a holy rite by everyone from Marvin Gaye, who despite being behind carnal masterpieces such as "Sexual Healing" and "Let's Get It On" was once called "as much a minister as any man in the pulpit" by Reverend Jesse Jackson, to Usher, who even in his late career was turning hip beats by Polow Da Don ("Love In This Club") and Diplo ("Climax") into backdrops for ecclesiastical-sounding melodies.
References to sex are now more prevalent in R&B than they've ever been, but as is a similar case with the transformation in hip hop gun talk from N.W.A.'s "Gangsta Gangsta" to say, 21 Savage's "Dirty K," sex is now referred to in more blasé, nonchalant terms. Today's male R&B stars are probably just as horny than their predecessors, but you wouldn't know it from the way you can almost hear them yawning when they mention getting "you out the friend zone" or having a "bad bitch, redbone on my body."
dvsn's new album Sept. 5th opens with some lyrics that could easily be written by any risqué R&B singer in the game ("Fuck me girl"), but delivered as they are on that track, with impassioned overlapping harmonies, those three words sound like the refrain at the end of a prayer's stanzas. The weight and emotion that singer Daniel Daley gives his words throughout the album has a lot in common with cheeseball ballads like John Legend's "All Of Me," but music for soccer moms this ain't. One of the Toronto duo's songs uses the pull out method as a metaphor for an unexpectedly intimate relationship; another takes "Clockwork Orange"'s "In-out-in-out" euphemism for sex to the extreme. Sept. 5th is the rare album that's (honest to god) exclusively about fucking, but more surprising than dvsn's devotion to the subject is their ability to waste very little of the 47 minutes they spend singing about it.
Over the course of the debut album, sex is viewed in remarkably different ways. Sex as therapy, sex as anti-depressant, sex as hallucinogen, sex as an escape, sex as a contest, sex as purely physical, sex as all-consumingly emotional and spiritual-- these are all perspectives that get equal airtime. It's a remarkably honest and realistic depiction of romantic closeness in all of its mutations, and one that always stays a little vague on the details to increase its universality. Sept. 5th has an oddly specific title-- simply naming it Songs About Fucking would be far more accurate than the time noise rock band Big Black gave their final album the same title.
dvsn already play a wildly effective trick on us by peppering classic-sounding melodies with modern slang and curse words, but musically, they're even more willing to pick and choose from different traditions. At its base level, their sound (minus the last two songs) has much more of a claim to the term "Trap soul" than Bryson Tiller's debut album, as hi-hat triplets skate over instrumentals that otherwise mostly sound like they're beamed in from R&B radio stations no later than 2005. But what distances dvsn's sound even further from their contemporaries is the incorporation of weirder elements from indie and electronic music. Sometimes, that means a level of minimalism that's rare in R&B (as heard on "Too Deep," which apart from vocals consists solely of sparse drums, sub-bass, and a very, very light synth melody), and other times, it's the inclusion of an atypical sound (like the How To Dress Well-esque distorted backing vocals on the title track). Sept. 5th benefits from Nineteen85 and Noah "40" Shebib's executive production in ways that you can't always put your finger on, but you'll recognize their sonic expertise as soon as you hear it.
Sept. 5th is about as strong a debut album as you can ask for, but after a few listens it's clear that there's still a bit of room for improvement. Sonically, dvsn are very close to creating their own sound from a palette of previously-existing ones in R&B, but sometimes it borders on transparent pastiche, especially when the Ginuwine song they chose to sample on "Too Deep" was already flipped on two Drake tracks last year. Daley's lyrics, while remarkably thoughtful and applicable, are sometimes too vague in that 40oz-Van-motivational-tweet type of way, seeming designed to be relatable rather than insightful. But that's really all I can muster in terms of complaints.
Funnily enough, this adventurous debut by a mysterious Toronto R&B act represents the exact opposite of the other obvious album that fits that description. The Weeknd's House Of Balloons arrived with similar buzz, Drake co-signs, and faceless intrigue-- most of it was about sex too! But while that album is all about obscuring the true meaning and feeling of intimacy with endless substances and self-loathing, Sept. 5th traces the act of lovemaking to its emotional and physical core. One is the work of a depressed kid, the other's clearly the product of a more mature, experienced individual (Daley is in his 30s). HOB is all dark tones and soupy mixing; Sept. 5th is bright and clear. You get the idea. Both are great albums that deal with moral ambiguity, and they perfectly represent the beginning and end of the brief tunnel that is your twenties without standing too far afield from each other in terms of explicit language and content (you might change a lot from ages 19 to 29, but you don't fully grow out of everything in that timespan). Most importantly, House Of Balloons was wildly unique at the time of its release, drawing inspiration from indie and post-punk, and sounding like little else in the contemporary R&B scene. Sept. 5th may replace Siouxsie & The Banshees with Elliott Smith and treat classic R&B with a bit more reverence, but it's just as much of a black sheep, and has the potential to be just as influential.