Album Review: Shenseea, ‘ALPHA’

After six long years, Shenseea’s debut album is officially here. Packed with star-studded collaborations, ALPHA is a confident, though, at times, uneven, step towards the mainstream for Shenseea. Over the past six years, Shenseea has repeatedly proven that she best shines on assertive rap tracks and dancehall joints that allow her to showcase her vocal charisma and knack for infectious melodies. In its efforts to position Shenseea as music’s biggest new star, ALPHA waters down the elements that make her unique, thus resulting in album that replaces proper cohesiveness and vision with flat attempts at radio smashes.

ALPHA’s primary issue is its sequencing. Five of the albums seven collaborations (exactly half of the album’s track listing features a guest artist), appear on the front half of the record — a move that stifles any potential solidification of who Shenseea is as a singular musical artist. Of course those who have been tuned into Shenseea prior to the official campaign for ALPHA understand her artistic profile for what it is. Anthems like “Shen Yeng Anthem” and “Rebel” prioritize independence, sexual agency, and women empowerment in a musical tradition that is notorious for its subjugation of women. For the vast majority of passive music listeners, however, it is ALPHA’s primary mission to establish Shenseea’s artistic profile, and the overcrowding of guest artists and hodgepodge of sounds make the mission a failure for the first half of the record. “Target,” one of the album’s two Tyga collaborations, opens the album with a breezy guitars that offer a nice contrast to the electro-trap influences that colored some of the album’s pre-singles. One of many sexually charged tracks on ALPHA, “Target” benefits from a catchy hook melody and lyrics that add some weight to the general theme of sexual instructions. “Everything good in my life I push away / Finally found somеone in my life, I want to stay,” Shenseea sings. At best, Tyga’s verse offers a nice full-circle moment as he also appeared on Shenseea’s first major hit as a lead artist (“Blessed”). At worst, it’s a reminder of how utterly forgettable Tyga’s musical contributions tend to be. Just about any other artist would have made for a more interesting listening experience than Tyga.

Interscope

Megan Thee Stallion, on the other hand, offers up an electric guest verse on “Lick,” ALPHA’s half-baked lead single. Offset stops by on “Bouncy,” a slinky lightweight affair where the production’s sparseness works to the song’s disadvantage; it’s a monotonous track that goes nowhere. On “R U That,” Shenseea and 21 Savage achieve a stronger balance of rap and dancehall on this tantalizing anthem of seduction. Unsurprisingly, both of the album’s strongest collaborations come by way of dancehall’s biggest crossover stars: Beenie Man and Sean Paul. “Henkel Glue” is still remarkably poppy for a collaboration between two dancehall artists, but it’s an obvious high point on ALPHA. The song’s tight structure increases its accessibility while the rhythm actually inspires you to dance — a vital ingredient that is missing from a lot of the tracks on the album. In an effort to craft bulletproof hits, Shenseea & Co. stomped out some of the innate danceability that makes dancehall what it is. On the other hand, “Lying If I Call It Love,” the Sean Paul collaboration, provides some interesting nuance to the album’s thematic palette. Leaning more into reggae than dancehall, Shenseea spends this track exploring what happens to her emotions when good sex isn’t enough to justify the existence of a relationship. The melody is a couple of steps short of a torch song, but her impassioned vocal delivery on the hook elevates the entire affair. Shenseea’s utilization of different shades of her voice is what holds most of ALPHA together. Whether she’s sitting in a more girly falsetto-driven lane like on “Deserve It” or flexing a gruffer tone like on “Shen Ex Anthem,” she’s selling each and every performance to the best of her ability. At times, take “Hangover,” for example, prosaic lyrics and overwhelming amounts of Melodyne threaten to muddy the hard work Shenseea is putting in on ALPHA.

The back half of ALPHA is undoutedbly the stronger half of the record. Standouts like “Body Count” and “Egocentric” find Shenseea flipping traditionally misogynistic concepts into anthems of trust and intimacy while also reminding us of her talents as a rapper. At the top of this year, Shenseea picked up a pair of Grammy nominations for her contributions to Kanye “Ye” West’s Donda. Her appearance on “Ok Ok Pt 2” is unquestionably one of the strongest moments on that album, and when she steps into that pocket on ALPHA, the album truly hits its stride. The album starts to falter when Shenseea offers undercooked attempts at pop ditties like the passionless “Deserve It.” ALPHA’s sequencing issues plague its runtime until the very last track. The record closes out with the aforementioned Tyga-assisted “Blessed.” It’s an obligatory inclusion given the guaranteed streaming boost, but it could have at least been properly incorporated into the album. “Sun Comes Up” is a terrific closer, and “Blessed” disrupts that sense of finality. For what it’s worth, if Shenseea had to include an older song of hers on the ALPHA track listing, “Be Good,” “Foreplay,” or “Shen Yeng Anthem” would have been much stronger choices.

ALPHA is cluttered and slightly unfocused, but it’s also an audacious collection of songs that display just how much faith Shenseea has in herself and her abilities. Between Shenseea’s confidence and her willingness to step outside of her comfort zone, ALPHA ultimately settles into a collection of songs that has something for almost everybody. Unfortunately, you have to dig a bit for the gems.

Key Tracks: “Henkel Glue” | “Lying If I Call It Love” | “Body Count” | “Sun Comes Up” | “Shen Ex Anthem”

Score: 63

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