Affection, angst, abandonment—these are all elements of Tolliver’s misery on his first EP Rites.
The album’s instrumentals, adeptly blending neo-soul, free jazz, chamber pop, and R&B in forward-thinking ways, are enveloping, hypnotic, and downright epic. He creates a truly avant-garde, unclassifiable style that has many parallels to the artful work of Moses Sumney and serpentwithfeet. He even shares their impressive, hair-raising falsetto, which plays a major role in creating the album’s high drama and baroque mood.
In contrast, his latest EP ThinBlackDuke is a clear departure to somewhere a bit grimier and pungent—a weird, indignant, and confrontational album that boogies down like a pair of double trouble platform heels. ThinBlackDuke, while not as unique as Rites, is catchier, more irreverent, and confidently guilty—which is to say that it feels born out of a strong desire to not give a flying fuck. Tolliver is here to do whatever the hell he wants (and admit to his own faults at the same time)—and when you hear how charming the tracks are, you’ll be just fine with that.
Born on the South Side of Chicago, Jon Tolliver was hanging in Minneapolis prior to making his way out west to LA in 2019. It was there where he cut his teeth as the singer for Black Diet, a five-piece outfit that straddled the line between garage rock and soul. Well into his solo career now, the grungy guitar licks and sharp, acoustic percussion fills that defined Black Diet have been long abandoned. That’s quite alright, though. Some have called, including his own Facebook bio, Tolliver’s genre “Alternative R&B,” which I think doesn’t really do his creativity any justice. Tolliver is incredibly versatile, boasting the ability to pirouette between shimmering soul-pop to straight-up trap in a single album without the entire project feeling unfocused and disjointed. A lot of people love to say, “Everything’s already been done.” Tolliver proves them wrong.
Although the instrumentals are brighter on ThinkBlackDuke, clouds still hang ominously overhead. On the self-deprecating opening track “Petty,” Tolliver is dancing in a summer shower of thick, neon basslines and watery synths, gleefully throwing shade at the “snakes,” the toxic relationships, the fake friends. “Cause y’all changed up the rules a bit / Graduated but I’m still gettin’ schooled and shit / Smell kinda fishy it’s a school a them / Like nigga we was good friends but you ruined it,” Tolliver snarls, totally over the bullshit. But Tolliver is just as petty, ready to watch his past burn like an effigy: “Now imma’ get that lighter fluid lit / I don’t give a fuck, I’ll smack ya kids.”
“ThinBlackDuke is a party record about guilt,” Tolliver shared with The Knockturnal. “It’s about the feeling put upon me by the world while acknowledging—and sometimes reveling in—all “fuckboi” behavior that gets me mired in B.S.” The message of “Owe Me Money” is consistent with that self-awareness—a satirical perspective of being broke, having cheap buddies, and making bad decisions in a pricey Los Angeles. “Yo good intentions ain’t gon pay my gas / You take this invoice, or I’ll beat that ass, beat that ass, beat that asssssss,” he hilariously threatens with a shimmering vibrato. That confident mood dies down though, and the wisps of guilt come back by melancholy “Agape” to sting his eyes like 2 am cigarette smoke.
“The EP plays like a tide,” Tolliver said when speaking to the album’s flow, “The tide comes in, my confidence rises: Petty, Drugs in College, Owe Me Money. The tide rolls out: Agape, Swing My Way. Sonically, it’s a pop record with R&B and gospel overtones, churchy-ass harmonies, and confessional lyrics over slickly-produced tracks meant for banging at the bar mitzvah, the club, and the chiropractor’s office.” You can tell that Tolliver doesn’t take himself too seriously. Maybe we need a little bit more of that—people who are able to laugh at themselves, and in turn, free others from their past by convincing them it is ok to mess up.
Beyond his shenanigans in LA, Tolliver’s troubled childhood inspires the mood of ThinBlackDuke. A press release states that “Tolliver, whose bisexual identity and appetite for debauchery are frequently at odds with his strict religious upbringing, writes with a keen observational eye and lacerating wit.” You can hear that desire for detachment in the sexually-addicted lyrics of “Drugs in College,” in which he indulges in the forbidden and taboo as a way to quite literally not wake up and have to deal with reality. Eventually, we all do have to face the music, and ThinBlackDuke is Tolliver blowing off steam, rolfing out that tension, and above all, an act of love towards himself and the entirety of humanity—even the “snakes.”