Leather upholstered booths, warm lighting casting shadows across the aisles, jukeboxes adorning the walls—stalwarts of an American staple: the diner. It’s the perfect place for time-tested favorites: pancakes drowned in syrup, fresh pots of coffee and Don Toliver. As you place your order, you may turn to see a dapperly dressed, but definitely downtrodden, man lost in his thoughts at a corner table. Our falsetto-gifted figure’s melancholia, however, could perhaps be alleviated by telling his story, and so we as partakers of what this diner could have to offer are invited to allow our blue companion to regale us. While his tales consist of new mistakes, familiar exploits, and everything in between, underlying them all is the same Toliver we’ve come to appreciate, attempting to alleviate one of mankind’s most debilitating pestilences—lovesickness.
Caleb Zachary Toliver (stage name Don Tolliver) is a Houston-born singer and rapper who emerged onto the rap and R&B scene as one of the most evocative and unique voices in 2018. Tolliver’s popularity spiked following a standout verse on fellow Houston native Travis Scott’s “CAN’T SAY,” and Tolliver signed to the megastar’s recording label in 2018. Since then, the rapper has released two quality projects, priming us as listeners for his latest.
“Where I’m at, yeah where I’m at/ I don’t know how I’m getting home,” opens Toliver on the intro to his third studio album. While most directly a reference to a substance-induced stupor in an unknown location, the singer’s words represent a telling motif throughout the album: the theme of our orator finding himself in familiar and unfamiliar places, both in subject matter and album production. Much of the album features Toliver lusting for someone; some songs leave his calls for companionship unanswered, such as “Let Her Go,” with its moody atmosphere that has become a James Blake-involved song staple. On the track, both Toliver and Blake croon, “Don’t I make you feel special,” the latter concluding with “I’m hoping I am what you seek,” leaving listeners with the same uncertainty as our narrators.
“Time Heals All,” one of the album’s very best tracks, sees Toliver with a similar air of desire, this time requited—at least in some capacity. The song features Toliver admitting to past mistakes, hoping the titular motto proves true. He wishes to fulfill said desires with his lover—–but for how long? He asks, “Want me to creep around or keep around?” While we may not know the long-term status of this relationship, Toliver spins his yarn atop a simple, but hard hitting trap beat. “4 Me,” by contrast, leaves nothing up to the imagination, swapping ambiguity for outspoken declarations of love from both Toliver and real-life paramour Kali Uchis, whose chemistry is palpable. The former asserts, “You’re the only girl for me/ You’re the only girl I need,” while the latter expresses, “I will take the stars out of the sky for you” in a track whose infectious expression of feeling is matched perfectly in its production. Mirroring the song’s tone of grand gestures of affection, “4 Me” boasts an addicting, jovial instrumental jumping for joy with high-pitched tones to back the optimistic sentiments of its singers.
While oscillating between spaces of certainty and ambiguity with regards to Toliver’s lovesickness, the album also takes viewers on a tonal adventure. Toliver’s latest project features the singer experimenting with new lanes of production and cadences, to results both successful and questionable. “Honeymoon” with Kaytranada’s typical bouncy, upbeat trap pattern embraces the fun of a real honeymoon, and features Toliver paying homage to fellow illustrious names in the game, doing each figure justice in his interpolation. The choice to open the song with a heavily enunciated flow, almost questioning in tone, seems to be inspired by the stylings of Anderson Paak, whose unique ability to emote through delivery is also embraced by Toliver. Later in the song, Toliver switches tone almost as if doing an impersonation, a practice that has been perfected by Kendrick Lamar. Most notably and recently, Lamat utilized his southern accent to perfection on the rap megahit “Family Ties” with Baby Keem; the Californian rapper is never one to shy away from an odd sounding delivery. Similarly, Don’s matter-of-fact, raspy rapping of “And I’m loving how it shake/ Shake, shake, shake like maracas” has a similar air of whimsy, daring to be creative in tone.
My pick for the album’s best track features perhaps its most unlikely combination of contributors: –“Private Landing” featuring Future and Justin Bieber. The track’s dark, bell-adorned production represents a far more new-age rap sound than the artist typically dabbles in, already setting the stage for a very different kind of Toliver song. And while both he and Future have very solid verses atop this hard-hitting beat, it is the track’s inclusion of the typically pop-voiced Bieber that provides the very best moments. Bieber enters commandingly, repeating the phrase “Keep going” before crooning, “I guess I’m spinning/ Double cup I’m leaning.” His switching from criminally smooth singing, to jolted, tight rapping ensures the song’s final two minutes or so are unequivocally Bieber’s to run—and what a show he puts on.
That being said, there are some experiments in sound and production that do fall flat, albeit still worthy of recognition for effort and creativity. “Go Down,” featuring electronic artist TisaKorean sees Tolliver out of his comfort zone, and element, atop a hyperpop-esque, synth heavy beat that does not compliment the singer’s voice, resulting in a jarring listening experience. “Leave the Club,” is Tolliver’s attempt at a standard club banger, but whose guest verses from Lil Durk and Glorilla are mostly uninspired rehashing of tried flows, on a beat that is far too hazy and grating to listen to. In contrast however, Tolliver’s delving into the contemporary Jersey Club style on “Bus Stop,” featuring the ever angelically-voiced Brent Faiyaz, is a raving success, with Tolliver’s smooth cadence perfectly countering the jumpy, hurried beat, and Faiyaz’s contribution in the song’s second half serving to switch the mood of excitement to a mellower one.
On “Love Sick,” Toliver takes his listeners to places familiar and new. It’s an album for both the star-crossed pair and the happy couple, for the dejected loner and the confident socialite. While not every element works to perfection, it is an example ofToliver’s skill and a reminder that he isn’t content with his current place among rap’s most prolific voices—he’s ready for more.