Cassie's mixtape RockaByeBaby is the first official project she's released since her self-titled debut in 2006. Cassie – almost entirely produced, written and marketed by her mentor Ryan Leslie - was propelled by the hit single 'Me & U' and presented a slinky, minimal R&B that, whilst it ventured into hip-hop, rock, funk and even OPM, stayed lean, with the entire album running at just over thirty minutes. The following years have seen a scrapped second album, Electro Love, and literally hundreds of unreleased singles (enough for a recent trilogy of fan made mixtapes) and she is now, seven years later, an unintentional underground favourite with a niche that's clear enough to trace but still too vague to pin down.
Cassie isn't the type that gives her whole heart over on record and she plainly can't sing as well as most of her contemporaries. Her thin voice can come across as distant but there are other virtues in her listless delivery appreciated by her biggest fans: a simplicity and guarded honesty that makes moments of emotional openness feel intimate and special. Her last two singles 'King of Hearts' and 'Balcony' played on both those things – warping club pop and woozy hip-hop to her own particular charms. When she split with Leslie after her first album many expected her to fall away while he continued his rise but the opposite happened; her adaptability proving more successful and long-lasting than his finely-orchestrated production. 'Official Girl', the first single after her debut produced by Timbaland's right hand man Danja, showed how good Cassie could still be outside the pristine comforts of her début. That chilly tone, with odd cadences and strange inflections to divert from her lack of range, may be avant, a compromise or even a mistake but it definitely is something. Her singular style is a marked contrast to both the blustering emotives of some of the biggest R&B stars and similarly understated singers like Jhene Aiko and Tinashe, whose highly accomplished artistry doesn't have Cassie's directness or spontaneity.
RockaByeBaby is kind of her hip-hop mixtape, and the product of nearly a year of recording and a move from New York to LA. Contemporary popular rap - slow, hazy, dark – is a good fit for Cassie and the subtle development in her persona – from the boss's flippant girl to the boss's ruthless enforcer – is decent enough too. The opening tracks play to her strengths and lead songs 'Paradise' and 'Numb' are particularly good: lush but spacious mid-tempo tracks with a limited setting and cast to free up her voice to sweep, swoon, bristle and crackle. They all unnecessary features from rappers tacked on them but that's a problem so engrained with contemporary R&B singers it would be unfair to single her out for it. Cassie says she makes “music to numb your brain” and Wiz Khalifa and Rick Ross can both be anonymous enough in their own ways not to kill the vibe. French Montana stumbles in at the end of 'Addiction' but his slurred verse is so hilariously incongruous you can dismiss it and focus on the an opening half and closing quarter full of delicate piano melodies and hypnotic synth swoops. 'Take Care of Me Baby' is a rich Mike Will made track that sits somewhere in the middle: her monotone vocals creeping over a theremin could be a really interesting experiment but Pusha T's current struggle for an identity shows up as a glaring lack of personality.
These irregular pairings are forgiveable but what's really troublesome are the three towards the end of the tape. Meek Mill, Too Short and Ester Dean are all great but the songs they contribute to sound more like scrapped versions of their own tracks than Cassie songs. 'Turn Up' is completely out of character for her (especially when bolstered by the unhinged Philly spitter who's memorably proclaimed his appreciation for a “hood jawn: lip gloss popping! ass fat! UGGs on!” in the past), 'Do My Dance' is her nod to the “ratchet” scene that lacks conviction and becomes totally lame when put up against one of the style's forefathers and 'Bad Bitches' is so dominated by Ester Dean you struggle to remember that Cassie is even on it. The fact that she doesn't write or produce any of her music isn't a secret but her ability to shape and convey a mood is vital and these three shockers, along with the rap verses provided by jobbers King Los and Yung Berg, are the low points on the tape and maybe even Cassie's whole career: completely devoid of the nuance and feeling that have made her her. Thankfully, they are in between by a twisted two-part ballad with Jeremih and Fabolous and a pair of concise interludes that may are uneven but at least show a basic understanding of her core attributes.
A lot of highly-anticipated mixtapes get bogged down because they are by regional rappers eager to make the next jump who draft in big name features and producers to create a homogenised blockbuster sound. Cassie's main problem is still stamping her artistic rather than commercial credentials and RockaByeBaby seems more of an opportunity to experiment rather than a cynical attempt to cover trends. It's a far better and more noble reason to fall short when it does but also makes the failings more serious, pointing at someone who is still really unsure of what to do next after many years and countless studio sessions. It was been generally well received, probably in part to fans buoyed as much at the fact that she's put together twelve new songs as the mixtape itself, but in terms of capturing that next single or even album, she's still got a way to go.