Written by Travis Shosa
“I put that pressure on everything / I swear it makes me a better man,” Quinton Barnes sings in For the Love of Drugs’ opening statement “1975.” It’s a suitable way to introduce an album that only exists due to him scrapping the initial version. To compare the sensual R&B of “Body” and “Arouse,” singles from the lost iteration, to the hedonistic horror show we’ve ultimately received is like going from a Miguel record to Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition. The singer/rapper/producer from Kitchener has been pushing the envelope since 2020’s AARUPA, while 2021’s As a Motherfucker hinted towards the path his third album had initially set to embark upon: a still ambitious but smoother soul experience. For the Love of Drugs then goes back to that old envelope his debut was pushing and tears it to shreds, pulling away from what’s palatable and leaning into the shocking and abrasive. What was once his safest endeavor has metamorphosed into his most challenging: as well as his most compelling.
While Barnes began to have doubts when his friend was unreceptive to a song he’d previewed for her, the final nail in its coffin was the release of Arca’s KicK iii. “I was like, ‘This is an amazing album. I need to be more creative and more exciting’,” he told RANGE. The new For the Love of Drugs, unsurprisingly, shares many of that record’s qualities: manic and aggressive, yet alien and occasionally camp. While still breaking into a warm serenade from time to time, Barnes raps a lot more than on previous projects, frenetically shifting between perceptions of himself and others. “Dead” sees him refer to his flow as “five star” while just moments later suggesting that he should maybe listen to the voices that tell him to end his life. It’s cold and murky, submerged in viscous bass and complimented by what nearly sounds like a tape reel devouring itself as it sinks into the void. And excepting the final girl from the first draft “Stunner” (featuring Ty Sorrell and frequent collaborator Christina Jewell), “Vaeprism,” and the “Love” and “Drugs” pair that closes the album, “Dead” may be its least harsh offering.
Of its three pre-release singles, it’s the middle child, “Scenes Of,” that best represents For the Love of Drugs as a whole. “I’m top shit ’cause Saidiya taught me / I run shit ’cause Saidiya taught me,“ Barnes spits over thunderous stomps and claps, referring to the author and African-American studies professor Saidiya Hartman. She may not personally ascribe her work as Afro-pessimist, but there’s enough overlap for the coiner of the term, Frank B. Wilderson III, to identify it as such. Barnes notes that Wilderson and Afro-pessimism influenced the album’s sociopolitical content. While Barnes describes Hartman as merciful, he’s “one step away just from pulling the trigger,” determined to blow the unofficial caste system away with bullets if that’s what it takes. Musically, there’s so much going on it’s almost a grab of qualities across each track: the heavy drums of “Wild Man,” the throbbing bass of “Dead,” the voice modulations of “Jealousy,” etc.
Elsewhere, he’s cheeky enough to build a song around Nicki Minaj’s “To Freedom” meme quote from her Queen Radio show. Yet it only serves to contextualize his confusion. “I’m feeling violent / My thoughts are spiraling / I’m rageful, I hate y’all / I need to be admired,” he admits, torn between his disdain for others and his desire for approval as the beat spirals downward with him. He claims that freedom is “the only thing [he’s] ever needed” while conflating it with esteem.
“Tunnelvision” is Barnes’ most eerie composition, where the influence of psychological horror directors such as David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Darren Aronofsky is most apparent. He declares his “right to choose violence” with sinister confidence underneath a revving of dissonant power electronics, dropping registers as he elongates the end of “I put a knife in his back,” as though his mind leaves him completely mid-word. Eventually, it softens, but the echoed cries of a specter haunt the song’s remainder as Barnes soulfully bemoans, “I fuck shit up for no reason.”
While much of its subject matter is grim–drug abuse, intrusive thoughts, suicidal ideations, racial violence–Barnes isn’t opposed to pushing For the Love of Drugs’ absurdity to near comical levels regarding his sex drive. It’s a very horny album. Footwork club banger “Fuck Alive” features audible pants as Barnes makes a conquest “beg for the dick,” whereas “Wild Man” is ironically clinical in its single-minded pursuit: its marching band drumline rallying him on amidst blaring siren electronics, like that Doug Stanhope bit where he peels off a sweaty football player’s tights after storming the gridiron as the crowd cheers him on. It’s stuff that makes the moral panic surrounding “Montero (Call My by Your Name)” and “WAP” seem cute by comparison. One can’t help but wonder what an alarmist rant from Ben Shapiro or Tucker Carlson could do for Barnes’ career.
But much of For the Love of Drugs amounts to the posturing of a sensitive soul plagued with doubt. He’ll threaten to stab before he stabs, only out of fear of being hurt. He self-medicates to cope with his self-loathing. His brags are not lies but small truths he aims to compound and lift as an aegis with which to shield himself. Barnes willingly throws it to the ground at the album’s conclusion. “I’m so used to being alone / You know I can’t make this a home / I’m screaming out loud I’m on my own / You know I really love you / And I don’t know what to do,” he tenderly admits on “Drugs.” Each blunt industrial instrument, skin-peeling sheet of noise, and barbed word demonstrates the power he’ll reflexively flash but ultimately lay down for those he can’t help but love. The experimental spirit of AARUPA finds the maturity and focus of As a Motherfucker on For the Love of Drugs to form something prickly and bold yet emotionally tender at its core.
Score: 8 Pollenate Me!
Travis Shosa is the founder and editor-in-chief of Stamens/Pistils/Parties. Formerly the runner of COUNTERZINE, he has bylines at Pitchfork, The Alternative, and Post-Trash among others.