18–year–old London–based R&B singer Cole Basta, aka Col3trane, has made significant waves following the release of his debut project Tsarina in late 2017. I was highly intrigued by what was hailed by Pigeons and Planes and Complex as an artist to watch in 2018 and by some articles comparing his unique approach to pop music to (our lord and savior) Frank Ocean.
Now, if I had written this review a couple of weeks before (and actually on time), I might have said that my foray into Col3trane’s work didn’t disappoint and that I had finally found something to chew on in between Blonde and whatever is coming next. However, on Valentine’s Day, Frank Ocean released “Moon River," a sultry and gorgeously arranged cover of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s classic. It reminded me of exactly what listening to a new Frank Ocean release is like; it grabs your attention and renders you completely incapable of doing anything else for the duration of the song. Unfortunately, this comparison highly flatters Col3trane and his mixtape quickly lost its allure after the first listen.
That's not to say that Tsarina has no merit. The project itself attempts to create a coherent theme: a chronicle of Basta’s various romantic struggles with what seems like a single person. It has an intro, outro, and interlude, all of which reference historical femme–fatales and act as a connecting structure throughout. I would hesitate to call this an album, though, because despite these connecting minute long tracks and thematic similarity between the tracks, this album is musically a little muddled. SG Lewis’ guidance becomes obvious with Basta’s (admittedly rather extra) use of high hats and poly–rhythms and, as such, the production is on the whole full and ambitious.
This ambition comes ahead in the lead single and most impressive track "Penelope," named after Odysseus’s long–suffering wife. It is written from the hero’s perspective and describes the love triangle between him, Penelope and Calypso, a Demi–goddess who enchants Odysseus on her island for seven years. The song has two sections: the first describes the longing Odysseus has for his wife and the other describes the whirlwind romance with Calypso. It eases in with moody piano and guitar, showcasing Basta’s obvious vocal chops housed amongst wonderfully produced but simple chords—the best 2 minutes on the whole album. It is the opening of this song which really makes Col3trane’s raw talent stand out; his vocals gently weave in and out of the beat never settling on a regular rhythm and harmonizing unexpectedly. This could be the Frank fan talking, but this ability to create such a lush melody over simple production really caught my attention and is what compelled me to review his mixtape. The beat switch which follows is definitely interesting but fails to deliver on the immense promise of the first section, as it becomes a much pricklier, percussive song.
The other stand out track is the simple but fun “Language” where Basta enlists the help of fellow London up and comer Ebeneezer to put together the album’s poppiest track. It’s much less complex than “Penelope” and Basta himself says that it is just “about having a good time and being around positive vibes”—I wish I could expound on this, but Col3trane’s description is actually spot on.
My least favorite track by far is “Mario Kart." This song attempts to create a quaint nostalgia around immersing yourself in a video game with a girl at a party, but tends towards the faux–deep and cheesy. The fact that he rhymes “bingo” and “lingo” in consecutive lines says it all and the in–game Mario Kart references would make a twelve year old blush. This song sums up one of the main problems I have with Tsarina; I can see what Col3trane is doing and that is precisely why I don’t like it. He attempts to invoke a kind of child–like simplicity and nostalgia but falls short; instead of resonating, it distances.
In an interview, Dua Lipa heavily endorsed Col3trane, taking special care to compliment his “international” sound and wide range of influences. Highsnobiety had a very similar comment, throwing around words like “synthesis” and “amalgamation” to describe Tsarina. I would agree with both of these appraisals, although not in a wholly positive sense. It is clear that Basta draws on many artists to inspire his music and you can easily identify exactly who is influencing him and when. On Tsarina, I can hear shades of Frank Ocean, Drake, Brent Faiyez, Goldlink and basically everything else that has charted in alternative R&B in the last year. To be able to remind anyone of these obviously successful artists requires an enormously high threshold of talent, but, fundamentally, that is all Col3trane really achieves with Tsarina. When I hear hints of dvsn on “X.X.” or Monte Brooker on “Momma Bear,” it makes me want to go listen to those artists, rather than revisit Basta’s mixtape.