We know a lot more about dvsn than we did a year ago, which is to say, not that much at all. For a time, their mathematical, neon-lit symbol was the only imagery visible through the fog surrounding their identities. At first, the mystique felt familiar. After all, the only bits of information put forth by the act were that they were signed to Drake’s OVO Sound records and were presumably from Toronto — an affiliation and a place that had spawned The Weeknd, a singer famous for building hype through anonymity. A year later, we’re aware of the identities of what we now know to be a duo, but there was no big reveal, no spotlights cast. On their sophomore album, Morning After, singer Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85 are still softly lit by those pinkish hues. However, much like the album’s cover, their musical world has expanded from a small, intimate room to a vast landscape.
The duo have expressed the desire for the album to play like a film. Not so much a visual album but music that suggests a cinematic experience. Specifically, they pulled from Asian, European and Latin films, emphasizing the location, color, and use of subtitles that transport viewers to another place. “In North America, we’re exposed to so many big-budget film and TV productions that we can really appreciate the raw aspect of so many films from around the world,” they told Pigeons and Planes. This makes “Run Away” the opening scene on Morning After, and it’s the closest it comes to framing the album like an action movie. Daley’s vocals have never felt so confrontational as he pulls from the urgent intensity of Michael Jackson before slipping into a haunting falsetto on the chorus. The swelling bassline and ascendant strings add to the movement in the song as Daley decides to move on from a relationship for the good of a woman he’s let down. “You were everything I need / Gave me anything I want / Every year we got older / But I never grow up,” he sings. In his early 30s, Daley is older than many of his peers in R&B today, and the concept of settling down and “getting [his] life together” is something that is constantly scraping knuckles with his more hedonistic tendencies.
The dynamic intro leaves room for Daley and Nineteen85 to work the scale of sounds and themes throughout. “Don’t Choose,” the concise pre-release single from the collection, is probably the first song they’ve made that could be subbed into Spotify’s Rap Caviar playlist with no one blinking an eye. Nineteen85’s soft-focus key line sounds like it could have come off of Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, while Daley, whose calling card has been his far-reaching falsetto, keeps his vocals centered and restrained throughout. It’s also one of two tracks that OVO’s younger R&B faction PartyNextDoor earns a credit on: his voice being used on the hook, subtly duelling with the central Isaac Hayes sample that’s been transformed by translucent synth tones moving beneath it. This fluid sense of R&B history is present throughout the album, whether it be evoking the moods of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” on “Body Smile,” the suggestion of Kirk Franklin’s “Something About the Name Jesus” by the choir in “Keep Calm,” or the more obvious, but masterful use of R. Kelly-penned Maxwell track “Fortunate” on “P.O.V.” The heavy-use of reference is something that’s been a part of R&B’s DNA forever, something it’s shared with filmmaking, which was surely not lost on dvsn. It’s an aspect that once defined the group’s sound, but now feels like a tool used to create something bigger and more unique.
As R&B has edged closer to rap in recent years, it’s also largely taken on its more selfish perspective on sex (that the genre has been producing an uneven number of male-to-female stars certainly hasn’t helped). R&B has never been close to subtle on the subject, but it has historically made an effort to speak and cater to women, something that’s been lost with a newfound ‘bragging to the bros’ take on intimacy. On “Think About Me,” Daley muses on a lost lover. “Who’s gonna make sure that you come first in everything they do?” he asks, both a simple sex pun that would make Trey Songz proud and a suggestion that whether or not he’s ready to lock things down with one woman, Daley isn’t only thinking about himself. On “Nuh Time / Tek Time,” sex is a healing process: “That body needs a little maintenance, I know / You just point me to where the pain is.” In this film, the sex scenes are plentiful, explicit, but always artfully and respectfully shot.
The album finds strength in its sequencing, working up to the climax of its thrilling title track. “I know you think it must be the alcohol / And yeah I’ve been drinking, no it ain’t that at all / Is it you? Is it me? Is it both of us?” sings Daley over an instrumental that uses Spanish guitar, accordion-like synth tones and a galloping drum beat to create a sense of adventure. It not only nails the album’s cinematic mission statement but also sounds like it could play side-by-side with “Wild Thoughts” on the radio, a new universality for the group. Still, the denouement made up of the Noah “40” Shebib-assisted “Body Smile” and “Conversations In A Diner” prove that dvsn should never abandon the slow, spare arrangements that made Sept. 5th such a triumph. Sequels are never easy, but with Morning After, dvsn have given us the rare follow-up that reaches its big ambitions without losing sight of the act’s appeal. Putting the music before all else always helps.