Heaven and hell are at the core, religious concepts. The idea Heaven is synonymous with being a do-gooder. If you abide by the rules Christianity, you will make your way to heaven. On the flip side that, hell is reserved for those who do bad. It’s a black and white duality that people still live their lives by, to this day. Depending on your definitions good and evil, heaven and hell can mean a multitude different things. On Don Toliver’s debut album, Heaven Or Hell, the Houston crooner attempts to show us that Hell is just a symptom success. A necessary evil that must be explored on a man’s journey to self-realization.
The album begins with what feels like a Rodeo-era track that makes Toliver’s debut sound -esque. In fact, you’ll come to notice that Scott’s sound is littered throughout the project. The intro, “Heaven Or Hell,” features a brooding and haunting instrumental with plenty sinister synths. Meanwhile, Toliver provides vocals that showcase both his trademark pitched-up delivery and a lower register he’s not usually known for. On this track, Toliver is talking about the duality success and how it could lead him towards two different paths. He could either become the sinner or the one who does good. As he sings “I wanna smoke some,” it becomes clear that Toliver is looking to enjoy the fruits his labor in ways that can be destructive. Of course, we’re talking about drugs, women, excessive spending, and various other vices.
These themes are present throughout the full 12-song tracklist. The aforementioned “Can’t Feel My Legs” is a solid example this as the Houston crooner sings about Xanax and trying to woo women from his city. Tracks like “After Party,” “Spaceship,” and “Wasted” all follow the same thematic structure except they are all presented in unique ways that keep the listener engaged all the way throughout. These three songs all provide a different vibe that showcases Toliver’s range as a vocal performer. “After Party” is more focused on uptempo, high-pitched melodies while “Spaceship” is yet another example Travis Scott’s influence shining through. These tracks demonstrate an improvement in regards to Toliver’s songwriting compared to 2018’s Donny Womack. Toliver substitutes his incessant need for repeating hooks with bridges, more verses, and vocal harmonies that add flavor to each song.
Perhaps the highlight the entire record is the sixth track, “Candy.” With help from producers and CA$HPASSION, Toliver provides listeners with an auditory experience that could be chalked up to a trap version Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Toliver repeats the lyrics “Candy couldn’t be so sweet” before delving into a refrain in which he talks about “living a lie” and how he is trying to save someone’s love. It’s as if Toliver is pleading with a woman for her love and forgiveness, except he is too drugged out his mind to really make a substantial case for himself. As the song dies down, we are met with a gorgeous guitar solo interlude that leads into some extended notes that sound like they are being put through a feedback loop. This is when Toliver changes up his delivery and begins to sing in more an r&b cadence. He sings “I can’t take it anymore” and “you’re so demanding.” It’s clear that he has given up.
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The angelic nature “Candy” fers a reprieve from all the moody beats that come before it. In the context the album, it feels like this is the first time Toliver is trying to explore the heavenly side his life. Instrumentally this is apparent but lyrically, his sad and lonely content completely contradicts the tone the song. This juxtaposition creates a feeling that Toliver is failing to juggle his desire for doing good and his need to do bad. Simply put, Heaven Or Hell is the story an artist being completely consumed by their own success.
Comparisons to Travis Scott’s Rodeo are unavoidable here. Rodeo had the same loose concept and just like his mentor, Toliver fails at going above the surface level. While the songwriting provides for catchy hooks and memorable melodies, the Houston artist leaves a bit too much to the imagination. Equally, whenever Toliver abandons his signature high-pitch delivery, he begins to sound a lot like La Flame to the point where you think it’s actually Scott singing. This is a pitfall you don’t want to succumb to on your debut album.
On a more positive note, Heaven Or Hell is a massive improvement over Toliver’s 2018 project Donny Womack. This tape was released a day before Astroworld as a way to serve fans who discovered him after hearing his uncredited appearance on “Can’t Say.” Donny Womack saw Toliver struggling to write verses. He would mostly repeat the same sticky hooks over and over again. While these hooks were memorable and fun, there was still room for amelioration. With Heaven Or Hell, Toliver strikes a balance between catchiness and musicality. The songs and ideas are more fleshed out and ultimately prove that Toliver has figured out his framework. He’s still finding his footing, but with Travis Scott as his mentor, there is still a lot to be excited for.