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The landscape of R&B has shifted in recent years, and artists are looking for the right path forward. The sound of the day is Trap and in many ways it's a departure from the genre's tradition. But the current sound also tends to be a gateway to mainstream success. Faced with this fork in the road, some artists travel between today and yesterday's R&B. And others turn away from ballads and bridges altogether.
Adrian Marcel responded well to this challenge on his debut album. 2017's GMFU offered both the music popularized by Marcel's peers and the music crafted by his influences. But on his latest album titled 98TH, Marcel fully embraces the moody, nocturnal sound of today. Some fans may question the LP's production, but the talent that made them fans in the first place is present nonetheless.
Marcel hails from Oakland, the same hometown that bred his mentor (and legendary artist) Raphael Saadiq. With Saadiq's support, Marcel released a number of impressive mixtapes and EPs. His roots proved to be a big part of his music, as the slickness and attitude in Marcel's lyrics represent the city he's from. But thanks to songs like "Waiting," Marcel is also known for vulnerability.
His habit of being honest, even to a fault, shows up again at the start of 98TH. The first words on "#1 Fan" are, "I've been drinkin'," so Marcel makes it known that truth serum is at work. From there, he explains a situation where the woman in his life no longer supports his ambitions as she once did. Marcel's words convey a reliance on his partner and his delivery matches this feeling, as the smooth confidence that shows up elsewhere on the album is missing on this track.
Marcel's sentiments are more upbeat on the following track, "The Way." The song is three minutes of Marcel kicking game—only he's doing so with riffs and runs rather than DMs and FaceTime calls. Marcel's mood changes a lot from "#1 Fan" to "The Way," but sonically the tracks aren't far apart. They're both driven by bass, beat drops, and hi-hats. This isn't the most elegant backdrop for a singer, but that doesn't keep Marcel from pulling off impressive harmonies and falsettos.
After "The Way," Marcel provides a brief break from the Trap sound. "Slow Burn" and "You Know (I Do)" are uptempo cuts that are made for dance floors instead of drunk texts. Marcel scored a hit song years ago with "2 AM" thanks to his skill with melody, and that skill turns "Slow Burn" into a jam of its own. "You Know (I Do)" would have the makings of a hit too if the 2016 Dancehall craze was still going on. It would also help if the song was longer than an iTunes snippet, but I digress.
These tracks provide variety to an album that otherwise has a consistent sound. This consistency sometimes makes for an LP enjoyable from start to finish. But for 98TH, it actually makes it hard for songs to stand out from the rest since their beats have the same foundation. But one track that commands attention is "Can't Go For That."
The song features chords that aren't cheerful or somber, but rather contemplative. They seem to prompt reflection from Marcel, as he questions whether he's reached a limit to the compromises he'll make in his relationship. Marcel sings in a way that embodies the frustration detailed in his words. This ability to clearly convey an emotion is one of the things that separates Marcel from other singers, as well as what makes "Can't Go For That" a standout.
Another great example of Marcel's talent comes on the album's closer, "Iz U Rockin." Over a celestial beat, Marcel offers not just a song, but a stream of consciousness. He addresses the woman in his life, sharing the thoughts weighing on him and asking if his thoughts will weigh on their bond. The song has depth, but doesn't feel heavy thanks to the production and Marcel's delivery. He mixes the charm of a singer with the slang of someone on the block, making the song the smoothest track on the album.
98TH is a solid project, but it would be stronger if it included more songs in the vein of "Iz U Rockin." Introspection and emotive vocals are key to Marcel's work. But these strengths of his deserve more musicality than they're afforded on 98TH. Instead, Marcel chose the direction many other R&B singers are following right now. Some fans will enjoy where Marcel took his music, and he definitely arrived at some great songs. But I'm looking forward to the path Marcel takes next time around.
Notable Tracks: "Can’t Go For That" | “Iz U Rockin’” | "Slow Burn" | “What’s Hann’n”