Racking up his third number one album in the last three years, it’s clear that Florida soul-trap pioneer Rod Wave has been able to deeply connect with his listeners with his brand of vulnerable vocals, ruminations on pain and unexpected samples. He’s certainly been able to tap into a formula, seemingly never running out of new ways to spin the same kinds of stories, but it’s evidently working out for him. With so much music coming out, hearing Wave fail to reinvent himself is starting to become increasingly tiresome for this listener – although it can be said that Nostalgia might be the album that leans further than ever to more of the “trap” side than the “soul” side. In fact, with a lesser-known feature on the first track, I didn’t think that it was Wave singing at first: he’s added a little bit more of an edge to his voice, and you wouldn’t know that, as he’s said, his biggest inspiration is actually someone like Adele. All things considered, Wave’s greatest strength is still his ability to tap into raw emotion and sound like he truly feels it deeply. A couple moments break through here, but we’re mostly left with either tracks without as much of that component or ones that it feels like we’ve heard before.
As usual, we start with a pitched-up sample on title track “Nostalgia,” but this time it’s from the only group that get an official feature credit for it on this one – Brooklyn indie-pop trio Wet. Despite the pitching, it’s still a pretty solid choice. Over dreamy pianos, frontwoman Kelly Zutrau outshines Wave in the passion department with a central “Where did the day go?” hook. Wave, on the other hand, could be mistaken for Lil Durk on this one – something I never could have envisioned from his past work. It’s unsure when his voice got so nasal, but the track finds him reminiscing on his humble beginnings, celebrating staying that way as he packs out arenas. “Long Journey” continues Wave’s typical tactics with the kind of acoustics designed to make you feel something – it makes me picture a family walking hand in hand in an A24 movie or something. With a heavy trap beat on top, Wave takes a melodic chorus to give praise to the Almighty for making a way through for him. His strong anti-hater attitude on the track feels a little uncharacteristic for him, and I feel like he’d sing the more positive message a little more tenderly on previous albums – it’s not as distinctive anymore. The subject matter on single “Call Your Friends” at least treads new ground for him, and it’s nice to hear Wave talking about forgiving grudges and checking up on your friends, even if there are a couple rambly bars about suffering from success, which seem to contradict the prior song. “HG4” is a 2-minute verse where Wave is again uncharacteristically aggressive, a lot closer to rapping, but the strength with which he throws the words out is why people connect with him, now applied in a different way.
Some of Wave’s most harrowing thoughts come out on “Come See Me,” a track that finds him at the lowest stages of processing heartbreak. Instead of belting out his emotions, it’s more of a halfhearted mumble, as if the pain was fresh. One odd thing that’s always persisted in Wave’s music is his tendency to just build up to a single chorus with a long verse, and it happens again here, the conclusion finding Wave hoping that the song’s subject returns to him before he jumps out the window. “Crazy” adds an interpolation of Paramore’s “Ain’t It Fun” to more “can’t believe I made it” stories, while “Fight The Feeling” makes it hard to tell why it’s the album’s biggest success: it’s the quintessential Rod Wave song structurally, but without as much of the novelty as when he first arrived on the scene. In today’s TikTok-fuelled society, when the song is nearly three minutes and most of the comments say it’s too short, something strange is going on with the song structure. “Love For A Thug” and “Checkmate” go over a little better with Wave sounding a little more like his old self while running through the effects of a romantic betrayal and piano melodies that are a little catchier and more emotional than some of the other beats here – even if lines like “Me and my partner popping Percocets, we’d trade them for a hug” and “Life is like a chess game, you’ve gotta think it through” sound like AI-generated Rod Wave.
Someone in some boardroom seemingly decided that it was time for Wave to make a regular trap banger with a 21 Savage feature, and on the resulting song – “Turks & Caicos” – it really sounds like Wave himself didn’t want to. The half-hearted “Girls, girls, girls” chorus makes it sound like he’d rather be anywhere else, as if too many girls have hurt him and he doesn’t actually want to see any more – even on a gorgeous Caribbean island. He’s actually never sounded worse singing, and 21 Savage uncharacteristically barely registers. With another long verse and single chorus, Wave talks about the effects of fame on “Boyz Don’t Cry,” lamenting people making jokes about his pain online and the lack of time to process things while out on tour while hoping that it all goes away. It feels like a short, undeveloped vignette, but the raw thoughts might hit home for some. Another odd Wave-ism is that his songs often take far too long to start, like on the cliché-heavy “Pass You By” and especially tracks like “Great Gatsby,” a two-and-a-half-minute song that begins with nearly a minute of instrumental. Still, Wave’s comparison of himself to Gatsby in terms of being a notable guy looking for love in unconventional ways has a surprising level of detail for a book that many just look to for the aesthetic. It seems like he really read it and understood the themes, as he uses the framework to deliver one of the album’s most passionate choruses.
Two of the album’s longest songs pop up near the end, when this listener is already pretty exhausted by Wave mostly being a one-trick pony over the years. “Keep It G” contains a couple stories where Wave acts tough, taking too long in the middle to play recordings of people complimenting him and his music. It’s funny as well that the one labeled an interlude tops five minutes, as Wave gets lost in a late-night romantic moment on “Love Story.” Naming names on “Rap Beef,” Wave avoids a concept that can only hurt, focusing instead on “killing the game.” It’s a little clunky, but you don’t hear many people delivering that message. “Back Lit” finds Wave delivering another seemingly contradictory message as he talks about getting out of his feelings and into his bag – when truly, his feelings got him his bag – before “2018” closes things out with another bizarre choice. 19-year-old guest vocalist Sadie Jean takes over most of the song with some vocals filtered to make it sound like its one of Wave’s samples. If Jean is the song, why make her sound like it’s the backdrop when she gets so much showcase? A final lowkey verse from Wave finds him touching on similar topics as the album fades out.
Wave has released quite a lot of music over the years, with varying degrees of success – truly, it might be all about how much of a mood you’re in for his particular brand of work on that day, but Nostalgia feels like his least essential collection since blowing up. A shift in approach might be necessary.
Favourite Tracks: Call Your Friends, Checkmate, Great Gatsby
Least Favourite Track: Turks & Caicos