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The king of the hook returns: Don Toliver changing the face of melodic hip-hop on ‘Life of a Don’

Toliver perfectly balances woozy melodies, oscillating synths and distinct vocals

<p>Toliver released his long-awaited second studio album “Heaven or Hell” in 2020, which spawned hits such as “No Idea,” “Can’t Feel My Legs,” “After Party” and “Had Enough.”&nbsp;</p>

Toliver released his long-awaited second studio album “Heaven or Hell” in 2020, which spawned hits such as “No Idea,” “Can’t Feel My Legs,” “After Party” and “Had Enough.” 

Don Toliver is the king of the hook. The Houston rapper and singer took over the melodic hip-hop scene in 2020 after being featured alongside legends like Stevie Wonder, Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, The Weeknd, Swae Lee and 21 Savage on “ASTROWORLD,” the Grammy-nominated album by Travis Scott. It takes a certain type of performance to steal the spotlight from this list of features and Scott himself, but Toliver succeeded in doing so on the track “CAN’T SAY,” which is often regarded as the best feature on the album due to Scott's phenomenal songwriting and melodies. 

Three days after the collaboration, Scott signed Toliver to his label Cactus Jack Records and has since molded him into a prominent figure in the contemporary rap scene. Toliver works hard, and his constant procession of attention-grabbing features in addition to Scott’s mentorship has aided his rapid rise to fame. 

Toliver released his long-awaited second studio album “Heaven or Hell” in 2020, which spawned hits such as “No Idea,” “Can’t Feel My Legs,” “After Party” and “Had Enough.” The project was well-received apart from criticisms that Toliver sticks to surface-level themes and struggles to find his own sound, taking too much inspiration from Scott’s style. Both Toliver and Scott are esteemed for the psychedelic and melody-driven soundscape they create, and fans hoped Toliver would differentiate himself from his mentor and reach a more personal level lyrically on his third studio album, “Life of a Don,” which was released Oct. 8.    

“What You Need” works to showcase Toliver’s voice and melody writing, while “Drugs N Hella Melodies” features the soft, passionate vocals of Toliver’s girlfriend, singer Kali Uchis. These two previously released singles are some of the most intimate moments on the album, as Toliver taps into soundscapes full of woozy synths and melodies influenced by soul and R&B. 

Other high points on the album include “5X,” produced by the renowned Mike Dean, which balances dynamic drums, clean 808s and Toliver’s laid-back vocals. “Way Bigger” comes in with energy and powerful bass as Toliver begins, “I got bass but it hit way bigger.” “Swangin’ on Westheimer” feels up close and personal and evolves into a slow pop-influenced track. 

“Double Standards,” is the height of Toliver’s lyricism on the album, with introspective lines such as, “It's so hard to be human / It's so hard to just live and learn with all of your mistakes,” and “Look at me, I ain't so flawless, had like 20 girls in Austin / It's like three or four a week (Yeah) I'm roundin' up, at least I'm honest.” 

Toliver contradicts the emotional maturity displayed in his personal reflection with a sense of detachment, singing, “Unlike whatever it is, I don't really need it / That right there, just might hurt you.” Toliver also presents this detachment in “Company Pt 2,” in which he sings, “She so in love with me / I can’t condone it baby.”

An eight-minute documentary titled “Behind Don Toliver’s ‘Life of a Don’” at the end of the album — only available to Apple Music listeners — reflects on several of the project’s themes. Toliver discusses his growth since “Heaven or Hell,” stating, “I just know it was some things that I really wanted to be able to express, that I couldn’t express, that I know for a fact I expressed on this next piece of work.” 

The outro on “Outerspace (feat. Baby Keem)” closely hints at Scott’s influence on Toliver with its guitar solo and chiming chords. Several snippets from the album sound like they could have been tracks on “ASTROWORLD,” but this does not come as a surprise considering both artists coexist within the same subgenre — and because Scott holds two features on the project. Toliver and Scott’s energies collide inimitably on “You (feat. Travis Scott).” The ebbs and flows of their verses drift naturally into each other. Oscillating synths and earthy bass create a waviness in the sonic atmosphere. 

Toliver also discusses on the documentary video how he “didn’t want to sound like everybody else” and has worked on “experimenting with my voice, experimenting with what I was saying.” His experimentation and unique style can be heard on tracks like “Swangin’ On Westheimer,” “2AM” and “XSCAPE.” 

Toliver falters slightly on tracks “2AM,” “Smoke (feat. HVN & SoFaygo)” and “Get Throwed” due to their repetitive nature and lack of lyrical substance — cue “got a Spanish bitch on me like a poncho” — however, catchy choruses, carefully crafted melodies and energy redeem him.

Toliver succeeds in reaching the goals he set out to achieve. He reinforces himself as a capable artist, solidifies his style and proves his ability to evolve past overly simple lyricism on several tracks. “Life of a Don” is a bold statement that demands respect.