After cowriting “Work” for Rihanna and guesting prominently on Drake’s last two albums, PartyNextDoor — né Ontario producer/rapper/singer Jahron Brathwaite — is the OVO artist best poised to follow in his boss’s wake. But if the mainstream wants PND, they’ll have to accept him on his own terms. His latest release, PartyNextDoor 3, is a dense, thoughtful album with a grand narrative arc about a relationship gone wrong, sure to provoke speculation about whether it’s about his ex-girlfriend Kehlani.
P 3 opens with “High Hopes,” a seven-and-a-half-minute-long song that asks and then answers the question “What if Phil Collins’s ‘In The Air Tonight’ was reborn as a sex jam?” Best listened to on headphones late at night or on a long solo drive, the album shows off the scope of Brathwaite's ambitions and talents. “High Hopes” features a persistent water-droplet sound like a leaky pipe in a windowless basement den during a rainstorm, with strict drums that evoke the industrial lust of Nine Inch Nails. Those severe drums reappear throughout P 3, anchoring riddims and punctuating erotic reveries. With its interpolation of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” and proggy structure, “High Hopes” is haunted, twisted, and romantic — gothic in the purest sense.
PartyNextDoor showed up on OVO in 2013, right around the time Drake and The Weeknd were widely rumored to be falling out after Abel Tesfaye signed to a label that wasn’t Drake’s. The introduction of PartyNextDoor to the roster made Drake’s point: He’d platformed one talented Canadian singer-songwriter and helped him to become a mainstream star; now he’d just make another. There are superficial comparisons to be drawn between the two acts, both Canadians who make depressing, super-sexed R&B and came up through an affiliation with Drake. But PartyNextDoor is no Weeknd clone — his style is distinctly his own. And if PND sounds a lot like a somnabulent Drake at times, you have to suspect a touch of quiet reverse-engineering: Drake is a stylistic sponge, and PND is Drake’s vaunted R&B consigliere. (If he's really Drizzy's friend, at some point he’ll have to tell the guy to say “tings" less.)
Brathwaite has a Bryan Ferry–like knack for evoking the loneliness of the long cab ride home from the party that went on too long. While “the good life can make you sad” is Drake’s spiritual lodestone, the very quality to which we ascribe his depth and realness, the lament is somehow more foundational here. P 3 exists in a state of bummed acceptance. Even on the explicit p-in-v ode “Don’t Know How,” PND sounds mournful; the emotional pathos and dark mood of P 3 means that even fucking sounds like loss. On “Joy,” he pleads “I wanna feel joy.” What seems on the surface as a sexual plea is actually a wish to feel anything but dead inside.
As much as it’s a work of remoteness, P 3 is sprawling in its sensuality, with production from OVO cabinet members like Nineteen85 (Paul Jefferies, of dvsn) and Neenyo. With a Vybz Kartel sample and icy bells, “Not Nice” feels like a cousin to “Work,” Party's platinum calling card — it’s melancholy dancehall to make you grind and cry. “Only U” is a straight dancehall banger with an unexpected breakdown that ought to dominate end-of-summer dance parties. It begs for long remixes.
The “party” in PartyNextDoor has always been ambiguously fun. Fuckjams like “Nobody” and the tequila-centric “1942” are tailored for such parties. Even when it’s going well, there’s an edge. The pitched-up sex wails in “Nobody” sound slightly demonic. He says “ain’t lookin’ for no boo, ain’t no ghostbuster,” adding to my suspicions that this entire party is taking place at some kind of cool haunted condo in The 6. He also says “only get lit when the sun down,” which is exactly what a vampire would say.
PartyNextDoor’s personal life came into the spotlight earlier this year when his ex-girlfriend attempted suicide after he posted a picture of the two of them together, prompting the internet to decide that she had cheated on her current boyfriend, NBA player Kyrie Irving, with her ex PartyNextDoor. Speculation about P 3 and Kehlani will not be quelled by “Problems & Selfless,” a two-part song produced by G. Ry that seems to respond to the incident. Party told Rolling Stone, “I regret how it went down.” “Problems” is about having “two beautiful women arguing” over him, and “Selfless” is about a woman who wants him to be miserable, possibly because of the aforementioned incident where two beautiful women were fighting over him. They sound like Jodeci in talk therapy, but with a coke-orgy darkness. “Selfless” has the lyric “you would kill yourself, O.D. and blame it on love,” accusing an unnamed girl of “telling lies” and making him look like an asshole. The song is devoid of empathy, which doesn’t help with the latter accusation.
There are a series of beautiful songs about ugly feelings on P 3 — “Temptation” and “Spiteful” feel like part of a song cycle with “Problems & Selfless.” “Spiteful” has cold synths and sleazy guitars that recall Sade’s “No Ordinary Love” as Party surveys his love gone sour. Three minutes in, the song shifts into a contemplative haze, as if it’s now questioning its own choices. The overwhelming mood is one of bad nights and blunting the misery with hedonism. On “Transparency,” he repeats “the drugs are loud” in the intro — the onomatopoeiac sound of supremely fucked-up people trying to converse over the sounds of the party and their own brains. In a Weeknd-esque humblebrag, he sings about about spending his “tithes” and “fucking somebody’s daughter.” Then the confidence turns, when the drugs do, and suddenly it’s 3, 4, and then 5 a.m. OVO Standard Time, and PND is laying into “I know you want me still” like a mantra to a distant ex.
“Come and See Me” is the Drake-feature, and it’s a stepper — just fast enough for slow, smooth dancing. I would like a video for it where Drake and PND do Temptations choreography in wide-lapel suits. The album goes out on another high note with “Nothing Easy to Please,” a song whose snares are so crisp they sound like the platonic ideal of a snare. Like all of P 3, it’s both catchy and complicated.