It’s an uncommon sight for singer/songwriters to drop mixtapes. While it is a slowly growing economy at the moment, most traditional artists still feel inclined to gain fans and recognition by more orthodox means.
At any rate, it was ZZ Ward’s short and sweet 11 Roses mixtape that gave me notice. Her thematic style of placing her warmly sung, blues-rock vocals over hip hop instrumentals — most notably Tyler, The Creator’s “Goblin” on “Better Off Dead” — was interesting not only for her great voice and peculiar way with words, but for how seamless the fusion was. Ward is an artist who made music on her own terms, affording each track with whatever it needed to aid her vision.
Her official debut, ‘Til The Casket Drops, shows Ward sticking much more closely to her obvious blues-pop background, trading most of the somber, late 2000s rap atmosphere for a little more dirt and grit. The album’s a cohesive cycle of love songs from varied points of a relationship that never gets maple-syrup sappy, sung with her impressively rich contralto.
It’s a shot away from Adele’s imperial range of ability, but even more confident and lively, especially on tracks like “Save My Life” and “Home,” where she pulls a ton of passion from a few notes. “Last Love Song” shows Ward at her finest, certainly able to jerk a few tears from her achingly beautiful mastery on the hook if not from the scorched chance at conjugal bliss in the lyrics.
The production on the album does have its moments as well; it features some foot-stomping, dusty blues grooves and the occasional layered broil. Ward’s palette allows for some interesting interpolations, like clickety hi-hats on “Blue Eyes Blind,” some riveting soul from the O’My’s on “Lil Darlin” and a re-appropriation of Freddie Gibbs’s “Oil Money” beat “Criminal,” provides a flavorful background for her singing. The arrangement for songs feel thought-out and sound, although the sonic similarities between songs can bleed more than necessary.
That’s mainly where the album fall slip a bit, similarity. Ward gives a nice variety of words to describe loving, or not loving, a man, but sometimes heartbreak just equals heartbreak no matter how one dices it. Also, Kendrick’s normally suitable muted delivery falls flat on “Cryin’ Wolf,” and the tender acoustic version of “Last Love Song” just packs more punch than the studio-grade album version.
These are minor gripes though. As a whole, Til The Casket Drops is a worthy debut for an artist of her standing. It doesn’t particularly experiment in one way or the other, but rest assured that Ward could very well display a greater mastery between balancing her influences. That makes this one an ambitious milestone.