This spring Drake picked up the first signee for his newly minted OVO Sound imprint in Toronto-based singer and producer PARTYNEXTDOOR. Like The Weeknd, who produced sporadic sessions as the Noise before a name change and a dollop of mystery sent his career into the stratosphere, and Frank Ocean, who toiled in obscurity as Def Jam songwriter Lonny Breaux prior to 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra, PARTYNEXTDOOR had been making cheery EDM-infused R&B under his real name Jahron Brathwaite before starting with a clean slate. Brathwaite’s OVO acquisition was announced with an unassuming track drop on Drake’s October’s Very Own blog. The song, “Make a Mil”, found PARTYNEXTDOOR running through fleet verses of self-assured melodic rap with greater ease and range as a singer than his benefactor. His eponymous self-titled mixtape trades the doe-eyed sensitivity of the Jahron B. material for something closer in spirit to the villainous player chronicles of Ty Dolla $ign and the Weeknd.
The album’s chock full of strippers and drugs, and our narrator navigates a succession of dimly lit clubs and private afterparties with devilish gusto, informing the exotic dancing love interest of “Relax with Me” that, “Girl yo ass is so instrumental” and noting elsewhere that “Shawty silhouette look like a dollar sign”. All of this is carried out in a vocal delivery that fuses an R&B singer’s melodic finesse with the percussive wordplay of a rapper. In his lower register he’s a dead ringer for his boss; “Wus Good/Curious” invokes So Far Gone makeout cuts like “Houstatlantavegas”. When he draws his voice up into a high register word flurry on “Right Now” he essentially affects Meek Mill’s puppy dog yawp. If you close your eyes you might mistake “Tbh” and its oscillation between Brathwaite’s baritone and high tenor ranges for a lost Drake/Weeknd collaboration. Brathwaite’s a talented singer, but sometimes you get the impression he’s better at twisting and recapitulating sounds than inventing them. The inarguable triumph of PARTYNEXTDOOR is actually his production.
PARTYNEXTDOOR abounds with homespun beats that turn radio rap tropes inside out. “Make a Mil” and closer “Ballin’” both call in the foreboding 808s and the cricket chirp hi-hats of trap, but the former does it in service to a central melody played on what sounds like a Pan flute while the latter undercuts its cavernous low end with breathy flute notes that soak up all the menace. Mid-album highlight “Right Now” revolves around a breakneck synth figure, while “Break from Toronto” bastes otherwise unremarkable drum programming in a choice chop of Miguel’s “Girl with the Tattoo”. Throughout the album PARTYNEXTDOOR’s flair for off-the-wall musical flourishes (the clinking glasses and noirish sax on “Wild Bitches”, the drillbit synth sound that piledrives the kick hits home on “Wus Good/Curious”, the brashly synthetic horn section on the chorus of “Make a Mil”) and propensity to stash melodic elements in unexpected corners (see: the marimba melody of “Over Here” and the album’s tendency to pair hollow kick thuds with deep bass hits to give the effect of trunk-rattling drums) collude to buoy these songs through fitful moments of mimicry.
Jahron Brathwaite’s decision to ditch the mealy mouthed, saccharine dance pop to transmogrify into PARTYNEXTDOOR has been a shot in the arm. He’s got the ear of Drake at a time when the Toronto MC’s presence has solidified into dominance, and his versatility as a producer and songwriter means he could be put to great use in the OVO pop machine. PARTYNEXTDOOR occasionally works better as an audition for future work with Drake than an expression of Brathwaite’s own aspirations as an artist. But it’s also clear from the bedroom intimacy of the production and the demo-like quality of some of the one- and two-minute sketches that pepper the album between the more fully realized songs that PARTYNEXTDOOR is maybe just a sampler. It spends much of its brief running time wandering around Take Care’s wheelhouse churning out deft approximations of Drake and Noah “40” Shebib’s pet sounds, but some of it is used to strip their signature brand of confessional hip-hop/R&B fusion for parts to restructure it into something new.