Daniel Daley has a voice so striking that it’s almost an affront he began his career as a rapper and songwriter; imagine having that gift and not feeling called to flex it. Nineteen85, Daley’s partner in the R&B duo dvsn and an exceptional pop producer in his own right, also had a musical entry point far from where he would end up: in punk bands with names like Coffee Double the Cream. The two eventually linked up in a grittier, pre-Drake Toronto. And after some years of quiet trial and error, they landed on a signature sound, a kind of red-blooded R&B that gave Daley the space to glide between his tenor and falsetto, and gave 85 occasion to focus his chameleonic style. A Muse in Her Feelings, dvsn’s third album on OVO Sound, honors the core of that alliance, but gazes past its perimeter.
A Muse in Her Feelings opener “No Good” is vintage dvsn: assuredly spare, with sparkling, Yamaha-style ’80s electric keys, unfussy drums, and coiled vocal melodies that recall Jagged Edge at their heartthrob best. But its austerity is a foil for much of the hour that follows. After two albums of insular restraint, Daley and 85 have pivoted towards expansiveness, inviting contributions from a surprising number of collaborators. There’s production from Drake and Travis Scott collaborator Allen Ritter, writing assists from James Fauntleroy, and multiple high-profile guest appearances. Future is in peak toxic mode on 2019 single “No Cryin”; Popcaan shines with a labyrinthine verse on “So What.” Buju Banton and Ty Dolla $ign form an inspired pair on “Dangerous City.” For the most part, the guests are wisely directed, buttressing Daley’s tenderness rather than muddying it. One low moment is “Courtside,” which features grating vocals from Jessie Reyez and a paternalistic concept that shares some spiritual DNA with that one City High song.
2017’s Morning After subtly hinted at an interest in the club, and the pair explores that instinct more fully on A Muse in Her Feelings. The album’s most interesting stretch is a risky three-track run that begins with the playful outro of “Outlandish,” builds into the Baltimore club-referencing “Keep It Going” and crests with the lusty “‘Flawless’ Do It Well, Pt. 3,” featuring Summer Walker in the role of an unflappable stripper. 85 wields his skill at turning vocal samples into lush but unlikely springboards for R&B—he repurposes a snippet of Daley’s voice for “Keep It Going,” and 702’s “Get It Together” adds emotional depth to “Flawless.” (The beat change on the latter could inspire a viral TikTok challenge.)
Unfortunately, Daley’s voice is infinitely more evocative than most of his lyrics. He finds inspiration in the slipstream of love lost, but chooses cursory remorse over introspection or profound revelations, and his songwriting largely lacks the specificity that makes a great song a transcendent one. Shallow writing turns “For Us” into a parody of an aching slow jam: “I don’t wanna/Waste a minute of my life without you in it/I don’t wanna/Act like you ain’t been the one from the beginning.” “Dangerous City,” a moody epic about love in the face of violence, features some of the album’s least convincing lyrics: “Baby, it’s safer here with me because they know me/The only crime you’ll ever face is feelin’ lonely.”
What’s more, dvsn’s aesthetic choices—a corny album title, cliché visuals—chip away at their mystique. On the cover, Daley and 85 are perched at a pair of wooden easels, while a woman, nude and partially obscured, sits atop a pedestal in the foreground. There are no identifiable art supplies, presumably implying, to great secondhand embarrassment, that they are painting her with their music. Rather than subvert the concept of the muse, one of the most overused sexist tropes in modern art history, they are literally embodying the patriarchal male gaze. The image tracks with much of the album, which feels thin even when it’s skillful. On Twitter, they explained the title a little further: “A MUSE IN HER FEELINGS AMUSING HER FEELINGS I’M USING HER FEELINGS.” The triple entendre doesn’t have the depth dvsn was hoping for and even though there are songs with infinite replay value, the album doesn’t quite have the depth, either.