“There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.”

—Maggie Nelson

Inhabiting the space between— the emptiness, the moment before action, Zen, or whatever other metaphor— is a convenient mantra to abide by when your life feels gripped by indecision. It's appropriate then that this philosophy has latched onto an era where people can have so much, so instantly, and still find themselves unable to bring those wants to meaningful action.

In Majid Jordan’s second album, The Space Between, the OVO duo aren’t looking at the solutions that would triumph indecision, instead that space is peace— the moment they want to prolong. Wanting something both ways can bring you that, and a better understanding of self. At the same time, opposing wants can become paralyzing; and for much of this album Majid Jordan remain entangled in conflicting desires. It complicates the philosophical proposition to be sure. Except this is an album, not a philosophical treatise, so the meaningful consequences are found in the music.

On their self-titled debut, Majid Jordan had difficulty uniting frank, pulsing pop songs, and melancholic R&B pieces. The dark stuff was moody and desperate in a way that was too often derivative, and the pop stuff wanted to be on another project. This new album, The Space Between, seems to have resolved that thematic uncertainty, pushing deeper into moodiness and longing. Now the uncertainties are all about love. About singer Majid Al Maskati’s messy hookups and the alienation that hangs over it all.

We find that in the space between, but before we actually go there, let’s start with the beginning and end— the moments, then, before and after. A refocused sound has sharpened Majid Jordan’s attention to album structure, and this latest one is loosely defined by a sense of parallelism. Like the album art, the “Intro” and “Outro” tracks bracket the whole project. These are moments for producer Jordan Ullman to get flexible, and outright free-associative with the production. “Intro” fades in real smooth, creeping up the walls like ambient music until, suddenly, you’re caught in a deluge of sound. There’s a shuffle of hi-hats that swell into something like a rainstorm, and murmurs of a kick drum, and soon it all makes sense. It’s pieces of the songs yet to come. Those are the drums from "Gave Your Love Away," the second track on the album; and that’s the sound of a passing car from a later song; and the hi-hats sampled from another. At the album's close “Outro” recasts those experiences and stretches them through a doppler effect of sound and memory. The chorus of “Gave Your Love Away” returns, slowed down and pulled taut over long, organ-like synths. Like any memory, the details get distorted and fuzzy when you look back. “Intro” and “Outro” are like this— blurry windows into the space between. Cup your hands to your eyes and press your face to the glass, and you’ll get glimpses and imprecise memories. What’s actually in there though?

Uncertainty. This is the defining mood of Majid Jordan’s darker ballads. “I’ve got a classic case of OG heartache,” Al Maskati sings. Desperate, all hope invested in a girl, but not quite in love with her— classic “OG Heartache.” Does anyone doubt that such a mood pervades OVO’s sad boy singer roster? It’s interesting to note that for Majid Jordan, the sad boys perform best when they know exactly what they want. “OG Heartache” is preceded by the mediocre “Gave Your Love Away,” one of those morose, insecure tales about not knowing what you want. It’s built on a twinkling, streaming synth and a simple drum beat, and Ullman steps back to let Al Maskati feel some type of way. The issue is that on lyricism alone, especially when he wants it both ways, the songs are palpably empty. That emptiness is not the product of spacey production, it’s that it’s really damn hard to write about not knowing what you want. That’s why songs like “Body Party,” “OG Heartthrob,” and “One I Want,” are so great. Outside of straight pop appeal, they are that OG Heartthrob committed to a decision. It might not be the right one, it might be hedonistic and impulsive, and he knows he’ll regret it— but it’s fun.

Left to their uncertainty, they turn to petulant children, and listening is as frustrating as dealing with one. One such song, “Not Ashamed,” is a series of generic accusations and back-and-forths directed at some former lover. Outside of cool experiments with voice modulation, it’s a tedious piece to sit through. Then there are the songs where you can’t help but imagine an insomniac Al Maskati tossing over in bed. Like “Phases,” an initially promising track that examines his personal experiences as an immigrant and the identity issues surrounding it; then the cliches come back and weigh it down with lines like, “Right now my life is changing.” Maybe it’s so disappointing to encounter these moments because 2017 has already given us successful prototypes for making music about alienation, wanting it both ways, and generally feeling inadequate (i.e. SZA)— projects that deliver freedom rather than leave the listener feeling as pressed as the artist. The space between is an oft-cited metaphor for infinity and peace, so why does this one feel so claustrophobic?

Some of the best moments happen when labelmates join in and pull them out of that claustrophobic ambivalence. On “One I Want,” PARTYNEXTDOOR sets the tone and cadence for an infectious vocal waltz. Keeping to a sharp, rhythmic synth, he and Al Maskati go spinning round and round, trading verses and harmonizing hooks. Similarly, working with dvsn on “My Imagination,” both Al Maskati and Ullman see their respective roles lifted higher. Nineteen85 gives the production that characteristic bubbly touch we saw on dvsn’s recent album Morning After. It’s enough color and vibrance to inspire a really beautiful and under-utilized falsetto from Al Maskati on the hook.

The album follows that high with a song that works too hard to clarify the theme of the project. The eponymous track, “The Space Between,” lets us know exactly what that space refers to (“Live in the moment with me”). It’s disappointing because of its heavy-handedness and because it’s presented as an epiphany that the album was building up to, like it was meant to be linear all along. Did we earn it, or even need it? When so much is condensed, inexpressibly, in “the moment”, why not just let those experiences float through, sans structure and order?

This album is best listened to that way. Peek through the windows, catch a glimpse. If you’re ready, just let yourself drift across the space between.