Counting the front cover, the booklet for This Thing Called Life contains over two-dozen photos, all black-and-white, mostly downcast. In a couple shots, August Alsina's view is from the ground, at the mercy of an ambiguously clothed man pointing a gun at him. Others show the singer staring at a shattered RIAA plaque for "I Luv This Sh*t," his platinum debut single. Only in the last two is he shown cracking a smile. Altogether, the images closely reflect the percentages of dark and light content that color Alsina's second album. "I done worked my way to the top," he proudly asserts, yet those who prop him up are treated with as much suspicion as those who attempt to knock him down. Success has exacerbated previously existing problems while dealing him a set of new ones. In one verse, for instance, he laments, "I try to buy my momma's love, she don't appreciate it, so I stay inebriated," while in another, he smacks down prospective hangers-on. As with the Downtown: Life Under the Gun EP and Testimony, most of the highlights here involve production from the Exclusives and Knucklehead. "Dreamer," strengthened by a sample of a Eugene Record ballad, shows Alsina spinning realist tales with as much conviction displayed in inward-looking highlights like "Song Cry" and "Hip Hop." Even though Alsina is a soul singer to his core, he continually draws connections to hip-hop, borrowing a song title from Jay-Z, interpolating Naughty by Nature, referencing 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. Given the album's immersion in street life and its grim aftershocks -- details ranging from hunger pains to the contemplation of suicide -- it's gratifying to hear it conclude with a sentiment similar to that of the booklet's last page. In the Polow-produced "The Encore," a Ralfi Pagan-sampling throwback anthem with a touch of gospel, Alsina concludes with "Had to get it how I could, I was so misunderstood out the hood, now it's all good." Its respite is much more substantive than what's served in the hedonistic singles that feature Lil Wayne and Chris Brown. ~ Andy Kellman
Pitchfork (Website) - "Alsina applies the tender, ruminative aspects of R&B -- and its sense of longing, especially -- to his street tales, and his second studio album solidifies his place amongst the upper echelon of modern-day R&B."