Never underestimate the power of a single hook. Don Toliver, essentially an unknown at the time, was featured on Travis Scott’s massive project ASTROWORLD on the highlight track “CAN’T SAY,” winning over an entire dedicated fanbase in the space of a couple minutes with his refreshing and instantly identifiable vocal tone and getting himself signed to Scott’s Cactus Jack record label. His debut album, Heaven or Hell, has now arrived, already doing some impressive numbers as Toliver attempts to step out from the looming shadow of Scott’s massive presence and influence on the current sound of hip-hop music to mixed results. It’s easy to see why Scott was so drawn to him – Toliver really leans into the spaced-out psychedelic sound and takes quite a few opportunities here to abandon typical song structures and be experimental. The problem with the completely novel instrumental palette behind him is that Toliver himself doesn’t seem to be interested enough in adapting his own approach to the ambitious sound he wants to put forward, utilizing similar bars and melodic patterns on almost every track here. “CAN’T SAY” was excellent for a reason and Toliver still brings that electric energy on a couple tracks, but on a debut album, sounding like an offbrand Travis Scott isn’t the best way to introduce yourself.
The schizophrenic nature of the project of the project is emphasized well on its opening track, the titular “Heaven Or Hell,” the project switching abruptly from the lurching psychedelics Scott is known for to a bouncy and joyful synth-heavy upbeat banger, Toliver’s delivery switching from a childlike falsetto to nasal and melodic Auto-crooning as the nature of the track sees fit. Most of the instrumentals across the board here are just as wild – and oftentimes just as confusingly strung together – as the opening track, but Toliver isn’t nearly as open to adapting on most of them, mostly abandoning the appeal his dynamic vocal timbre initially suggested to chase dreams of holding together a project that takes some unexpected sonic diversions as well as his label boss does. Scott himself appears on the next track, “Euphoria,” which never really picks itself up off the ground despite an engaging guest verse from singer Kaash Paige as the two melodic rappers lean into the absolute worst tendencies of Scott’s desires to melt into a slow-moving mix, the rhythmic structure disintegrating completely by its conclusion as it sounds like the two are essentially freestyling over a “chill beats to study to” video on YouTube, throwing their voices up and down the scales as the AutoTune doesn’t do much to edit their vocalizations into any form of memorable melody.
The beats get to more standard bass-heavy trap fare over the course of the next few tracks, something that for once I wanted to hear more of on this project because the real appeal of Toliver is the new approach he brings to a familiar formula – “Cardigan” has been getting quite a bit of attention and does have quite a catchy instrumental that switches it up in all the right place with some synth-piano flourishes, but the descending melody and rather monotone cadence Toliver brings to the table is far too reminiscent of the “CAN’T SAY” melody, a problem that crops up a surprising amount here – it becomes all the more evident as soon as he opens the next track “After Party” in the exact same way.
The tracks that really succeed here are when Toliver finds the balance between his unorthodox vocal approach and the ear for a smash hit melody that he clearly possesses. “Had Enough,” which previously appeared on the JACKBOYS collaborative tape between all the members of Scott’s label, curiously appears in the middle of the album rather than as a bonus track, but it once again stands out as one of the better tracks in this collection, Toliver sounding seriously soulful over the Beyonce-sampling beat as two of the Migos show up to do their thing. The back-to-back tracks “Wasted” and “Can’t Feel My Legs” are where Toliver finds his stride in the early goings of the album. Toliver serves as his own backing vocalist on the former on an intoxicating call-and-response hook that finally switches things up over some rumbling bass notes, while previously released single “Can’t Feel My Legs” sees Toliver make the most out of a relatively complex trap beat, making the most impactful notes of his melodic hook hit at just the right points, the video game synths coming in for the second verse to fill out the woozy instrumental world even more.
The sonic decisions only get all the more inexplicable from there. The track “Candy” sounds so promising as it opens sounding like The Weeknd’s new trippy synthpop cuts, but its underwritten nature causes it all to fall apart quickly, the instrumental far too varied for what Toliver brings to the table here, which isn’t much more than an underwhelming repeated hook and verses with some of the worst singing across the whole project, letting his vocals fall off the melody at the end of each line and not quite lining up with the subtleties of the beat behind him in a couple moments. The guitar solo in “Candy” previews an even messier track in a similar style on the next track “Company,” Toliver dropping the most standard of trap flows and lyrics over an instrumental that honestly resembles the synth-laden insanity of the soundtrack from the movie Annihilation – it sounds like someone mistakenly put a vocal take from the wrong song on top of this instrumental, absolutely nothing lining up and making for a truly stressful listening experience until the final segment when everything finally clicks too late. The similarly improvisatory Sheck Wes doesn’t do much to improve the track “Spaceship,” while the appeal of the grating falsetto on the seriously bland TikTok smash hit “No Idea” continues to evade me.
Toliver has most of the tools he needs to become a serious force in the industry, but at the moment he, like quite a few young artists at the moment, seems to be stuck in the shadow of his mentor. Toliver’s natural voice is one of the most exciting new developments in hip-hop music, and eventually he’ll learn how to get the most out of it.
Favourite Tracks: Can’t Feel My Legs, Had Enough, Wasted
Least Favourite Track: Company