Album of The Year #20: Don Toliver - Heaven Or Hell
It's highly recommended you listen to the album while reading this review.
Background by /u/baskin5000
Caleb Zackery "Don" Toliver has been one of the most unique sounding Hip Hop and RnB artists of the late 2010’s and now 2020’s. Relatively unknown outside of Houston prior to 2018, the rapper, singer, and songwriter is now instantly recognized by his smooth, Akon-esque voice. /u/dotdotdotdadadotdot iconically described his tonality as sounding like, “...a sentient robot covered in Texas Roadhouse cinnamon butter” (/u/Kitchen_ur_lies, JACKBOYS 2019). The Autotune Android is known to the general public as the man behind the hits, No Idea, After Party, and now the absolutely massive, Lemonade, by Internet Money but his rise to the mainstream was set in place much earlier.
How did this once near-nonexistent artist now become so recognizable? The earliest evidence of his music career was in 2015, when he collabed with fellow Houston native YungJosh93 on some soundcloud songs. In 2017, the duo released the collaborative project, Playa Familia. This project along with two separate singles from Don, Diva, and I Gotta, enough buzz was generated to get the kid signed. YungJosh has not fared as well in hindsight. In March of 2018, Don Toliver signed to Atlantic Records and We Run It ent. Diva would end up being one of the lead singles for his debut mixtape, and how I and so many others came to discover him in one of the most well-timed business moves in recent history.
In July of 2018, Holdin Steel was released featuring Dice Soho, and that song along with Diva became the singles for his first official project, Donny Womack. D.W. officially dropped on August 2nd of 2018, note the date. Creeping in the shadows, the cactus stroking madman Travis Scott was scattering the dominos for the success pizza that would be Young Donny.
Flashback to 2016, deet deet hours. Travis Scott from Houston TX released his second album Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. Prior to the Birds’ release, he had already announced what would be the title of his next next album, being ASTROWORLD. After the exhausting delay and anticipation of Birds, ASTROWORLD brought the trauma back, and was anticipated to be one of those albums that may never get released. Come 2018, ASTROWORLD was officially announced, along with MANY MERCH DROPS. When was Astroworld slated for release? AUGUST 3RD, 2018. THE DAY AFTER DONNY WOMACK DROPPED. Who's one of the features on ASTROWORLD?? DON TOLIVER. WHO GETS SIGNED TO CACTUS JACK DAYS LATER??? DON FUCKING TOLIVER.
So hear me out. CAN'T SAY is an elite tier Trav song. Many others feel the same. Don’s verse brought that thing to a whole other level. If you’re a Travis Scott fan listening to Astroworld for the first time, you’re thinking: “wow who’s this guy who may or may not be Akon idk I wasn’t old enough to hear Akon bangers on the radio” so you go to check out Don’s music on whatever hypothetical streaming service and BAM HE JUST RELEASED AN ALBUM??? I HAVE TO CHECK IT OUT.
Cactus Jack is not a businessman, but a business, man.
A year and a half later, Don is featured on the JACKBOYS official tape, JACKBOYS, and aside from Travis Scott himself, Don Toliver is the most featured Artist. In 2020, he's featured on a myriad of other projects, with artists from Rico Nasty all the way to Eminem, and a personal favorite by Masego and Heaven Or Hell is released as his debut album on March 13, 2020.
Review by /u/baskin5000
In the age of psychedelic trap, with artists crooning rather than rapping over the dizzying, trippy production, Don Toliver’s Heaven Or Hell captures the sound perfectly. While Donny Womack showcased the vocal and melodic talent of Don Toliver, Heaven or Hell refined his style with masterclass production and mixing at his disposal.
Take No Idea, one of the lead singles leading into this album. Wondagurl and Cubeatz are some of the biggest producers in the game currently, renowned for their unique loops and drum patterns. They produced “Can’t Say” as explained in the background, and Don Toliver’s voice dovetails perfectly into each and every track they collaborate on. On No Idea, the hihats sound like cicadas as they rattle. Dreamy layers chug along in the background, with extremely lofi sampled percussion helping give the track a sense of movement without being too overwhelming.
“I’m feeling like I did too much” captures the tone of this track - also the theme of the album - perfectly. Don’s voice reaches such a dizzying high register in the post chorus that creates a heady feeling, almost like you’re greening out or about to reach the peak of a trip. The album as a whole keeps this feeling in mind, with a fair share of sections giving this same experience.
The theme of Heaven Or Hell is simple, described in the opening track: The choices you make determine where you’ll end up. Whether that be Heaven or Hell, mediocrity or notoriety. We can assume Don has chosen the latter in both. The album talks about vices and sins. Drugs, sex and violence. The first verse of Heaven Or Hell is in switching perspectives of a pastor and Don Toliver. The pastor wonders what choices Don will make. “I know it get hot as hell”, should be enough to know what he’s decided. It can be interpreted multiple ways; The heat of a hotbox in his push-to-start car, the heat of passion in sex, or the heat of someone approaching hell. The mantra “I wanna smoke some”, is repeated throughout the song almost like Don Toliver is in a trance. He’s accepted the dark, spacey, avant-garde lifestyle.
Euphoria follows up and is a change in pace in the Don Toliver ethos. It’s a slow trap ballad, featuring Cactus Jack leader Travis Scott and Kaash Page, another artist hailing from Texas. Don’s presence is understated in the track, as Kaash takes the mainstage, drizzling her vocals throughout the track.
"I’m drowning in Euphoria” is the motto as Kaash and Trav croon the phrase throughout the song. An alien synth counters in the background, adding to the overall spacey atmosphere. We see a much more laid back performance from Don Toliver, as well as Travis Scott. Even though both are known for their driving psychedelic styles, this track offers the same theme in a different experience, and it’s done well.
Company has a similar laidback feeling with its limited percussion. Don only melodically raps one verse, the focus of which is wanting a girls company. Synth keys are all over the place in this track, as well as background vocals from Don. The swelling of the synth after his verse leads into a percussive drop, that rides as Don repeats “I miss having your company”. And as the track nears its end, what do we hear? Mike Dean, offering his classic guitar for a quick lick and a send off.
While Company and Euphoria might not be the most high energy tracks in Don Toliver’s catalogue, they might be the most cinematic. The mood in each track builds in waves; Don takes a backseat using his vocals more as a complement instead of a lead. In the context of Heaven Or Hell, these might be the most heavenly. They flesh out the album and really help make HoH stand out as a complete body of work, unlike other “albums” to come out this year that are glorified compilations of the same sort of song.
Heaven or Hell does have its fair share of bangers, however. In the same realm of No Idea which was discussed earlier, Cardigan and Can’t Feel My Legs are some of the catchiest tunes on the project. Cardigan was originally introduced to the world as a snippet on the Travis Scott documentary, Look Mom I Can Fly. Half the song was also included in Don Toliver’s setlist during the Astroworld festival. Don’s signature sound meshes incredibly well with the beat, which switches to a soft piano outro, offering a dynamic atmosphere. The song feels exceptionally complete even though there isn’t a single verse in the song. “Cardigan” only consists of a chorus and a postchorus/bridge. Sometimes simplicity is key.
Can’t Feel My Legs was initially released in an EP containing No Idea, and a Screw inspired remix of No Idea by DJ Purpberry. The loop playing in Can’t Feel is similar to the theme you’d hear on a carousel, with its swirling melody and choice of instruments. You can hear a clear 80’s inspiration in the choice of a plucky synth bass as well as the synth chord progressions.
After Party, and Had Enough are two tracks with an interesting atmosphere. Clearly trap influenced and brimming with energy ("OKAY I PULL UP"), the instrumentation in the sample-esque loops are almost like something you’d hear in a renaissance festival. Both of these tracks have also helped in promoting Don Toliver as well. The former track has become a tiktok hit, which has helped propel Don to a wider audience. The latter was first featured on the Jackboy’s compilation album, an album that featured Don Toliver more than any other signed member.
There are moments on this album that truly stand out. Mike Dean’s guitar presence at the end of Company, as well throughout Candy. Don Toliver’s falsetto during the post-chorus in No Idea. The spaced out and delayed vocals from Don during the piano outro in Cardigan. These are all small sections in their respective songs, but those are also the details that can really stick in a listener’s mind, and really flesh out the project as a whole.
Heaven or Hell has stood out as a work of art in 2020 with its high class production and vocals. Don Toliver is separated from his contemporaries with his unique voice, and influence from Travis Scott. Using the privileges through the Cactus Jack collective, he’s able to have a top tier team mixing and mastering his songs to perfection. Each song is just as trippy as the last, yet every track is memorable due to catchy melodies from Don, and the unique choice of instruments and arrangements in the instrumentals. This is only two years after Donny Womack, and even though it looks like Don has found his sound and style, there’s plenty of room for growth.
Favorite Lyrics by /u/baskin5000
"You're sorry that you missed these words, yeah we take that
But you wanna waste my time like you made that."
Don Toliver - Wasted
"I missed having your company."
Don Toliver - Company
"You were so in love you were in love you weren't gonna tell me nothin'; Let me get this clear, cause I had no idea."
"I'm feeling like I did too much."
Don Toliver - No Idea
Discussion Questions by /u/baskin5000
What were some of your favorite moments on the album? Favorite song?
Where do you think Don Toliver will go from here, musically?
Is Heaven or Hell your favorite project from Donny? If not, which is?
from /r/HipHopHeads on Reddit https://ift.tt/2XoHt4D