Ever since Don Toliver’s breakout feature “CAN’T SAY” on Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD (2018), the rapper has refined his unique artistry and put Scott’s Cactus Jack Records collective on the map.
Toliver’s soulful-yet-robotic, almost psychedelic vocal and rap style showcased on ASTROWORLD was further developed when he dropped his debut album Heaven or Hell (2020). The album included hits like “No Idea” and “After Party,” both of which went on to chart high on the Billboard Global 100 and Bubbling Under Hot 100 charts, respectively. In the same year, Toliver featured on Internet Money’s “Lemonade” with Gunna and NAV, a song that peaked at #1 on the Billboard Global 200 and achieved almost 900 million streams on Spotify alone.
Needless to say, Don Toliver solidified himself as a rising star in the current hip-hop game, setting high expectations for his sophomore album. After a couple listens to Life of a DON (2021), I can confidently say that Toliver did not disappoint.
The spacey and serene sound that he established for himself in Heaven or Hell is immediately recognizable in Life of a DON’s opening song “XSCAPE,” but it seems Toliver takes a rather mainstream approach with the second track “5X.” With an obvious focus on catchiness opposed to cohesiveness, the song follows the modern hip-hop formula. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. In fact, “5X” might be my favorite song on the album. Despite being the shortest song on the album at two minutes and 12 seconds, its repetitive lyrics and layered vocals kept me replaying it for more.
The following songs, “Way Bigger,” “Flocky Flocky” (featuring Travis Scott), and the lead single “What You Need,” continue the mainstream evolution of Toliver’s sound, still heavily reminiscent of the two popular tracks from his last record, “No Idea” and “After Party.” The transition from “5X” to “Way Bigger” really struck me with the album’s impeccably polished production. The bass on “Way Bigger” hits hard and yet mixes well with Toliver’s smooth vocals.
Track five, “Double Standards,” changes the tone of the album, slowing down the beat and upping the reverb, with Toliver’s melodies and runs adding to the song’s synth-heavy astral atmosphere. “Drugs N Hella Melodies” featured Toliver’s girlfriend Kali Uchis in a surprisingly successful fusion. Uchis’ soft and siren-like vocals perfectly match Toliver’s psychedelic flow, living up to the trippy and soulful sound insinuated by the song’s title.
But I’m most conflicted about the collaborations on this album. Although I loved “Drugs N Hella Melodies” with Uchis, as well as “OUTERSPACE” with Baby Keem, “Smoke” could have worked better without the HVN and SoFaygo verses. Their vocals were audibly harsher than Toliver’s, and they failed to successfully merge throughout the track. And while I’m a fan of the second Travis Scott feature on the album, “You,” “Flocky Flocky” is a mess. On top of sounding rushed and oddly mixed, Scott’s verse makes very little sense. He says, “I keep a place to bait, to tune your brain up / She stuff her face in cake, no way it’s safe / Just save your words, that’s safe.” Huh?
Toliver’s critics have argued that he lives in Travis Scott’s shadow and that his songs could easily be Scott throwaways. However, Life of a DON is no ASTROWORLD, and despite features from Scott himself, couldn’t be further from a Travis Scott album. While the two certainly rely on their similar melodic sing-song rap style, Toliver manages to evolve the synth-heavy, hazy, and somewhat otherworldly sound he established in his debut album with superior production and the incorporation of quirks popular in hip-hop music today.