Had PRBLMS been released three or four years ago instead of now, it’d likely have been inescapable. Not for a lack of trying though, as NOT A TOY would’ve likely been the recipients of an industry mega-push to forcefully replicate the ‘successes’ of Chase Atlantic. The fact that this is squeaking out with barely a peep behind it in 2023 is mercilessly telling; sure, alternative crossovers remain spurious as ever, but there’s clearly little faith that this is going to get anywhere. After all, NOT A TOY’s self-titled EP failed to spark the same alt-pop / genre-car-crash fire as grandson and that cursed ilk, so why would this be any different?
Well, here’s the thing—there’s probably not no confidence behind NOT A TOY, but if you want anything that actually seems genuine, you’ve got a bit of a task at hand. “NOT A TOY is not a band,” boldly proclaims the bio on their label Fearless’ website, “it’s a collective of four creatives.” That kind of phraseology has become such a lukewarm cop-out within alternative music, where it’s supposed to signify a smashing of genre boundaries that strives to let unimpeded creativity blossom. What it really means, however, is that the act in question is likely a proponent of an alt-pop-trap style, and a beneficiary of a view on genre that’s more lax and flexible than ever, to where a label this size can’t be ignorant of at this stage. So when their own label seems to be simply throwing them a bone out of kindness, there isn’t a lot of hope coming from NOT A TOY’s PRBLMS. It’s hopping on a wave that’s almost entirely troughed, with insufficient steam to break out and become something of its own.
But even then, it’s not terrible. At least, not to begin with, when NOT A TOY show off their alt-trap form from its best angle. Mostly, that’s thanks to the rumbling bass and taut percussion, actually landing with a bit of variety between songs like grown folk problems and Nervous. It’s all produced fairly well too, where there’s a clear depth to be seen that’s illuminated by how crisp the overall fidelity is. As far as alt-pop goes, PRBLMS can at least sound good when presenting it. And although they don’t occur often, the more overtly poppy swerves do have effort put into them; with the slithering horn line on Soul Slippin or the gurgling flourishes under the surface of Dementor, they’ve clearly not just been slapped on in post.
If that’s the default, then NOT A TOY could have something going for them; it likely still wouldn’t be amazing or anything, but it’s still something. But just like Chase Atlantic—and indeed, a whole slew of others—ahead of them, the presence of parts done right doesn’t save the whole thing. It’s probably more true here, as at least Chase Atlantic feel bound to their opulent trap atmosphere that raises the floor somewhat. NOT A TOY, meanwhile, seem to degrade as the album goes on, losing the thickness that characterises the album’s first leg for something far more slushy and lacking. They’re on Dominic Fike-esque acoustic pop for a portion of DIE W/ U (a song that wants to be the album’s most fluid statement of creativity in how many disparate parts it unsuccessfully mashes together); meanwhile, SUPER IRRELEVANT and beam me up.aif serve as a pair of whiffed closers, in their general weightlessness and lack of presence. It’s true that the production is the obvious lifejacket that a lot of these songs are still reliant on, though even then, it’s only just about keeping them afloat, not actively rescuing them.
On top of all that, there’s also the factor of built-in limitations. Because yes, no matter how much NOT A TOY and the environment around them wish to insist that this can be anything, that’s not at all the vibe they’re giving off here. It’s much closer to your usual, everyday alt-pop, as Brandon Hoog squeaks and squeals in his nasal little voice, about a broad selection of topics without much meat on them outside of the occasional inexplicable line, like his revelation that he only posts feet pics on his Instagram on grown folk problems. That kind of solidifies how desperate NOT A TOY are to be like Post Malone, in the sense of a quirkier everyman superstar, lodged in trap but unafraid to tilt his sails elsewhere if the feeling takes him. And while that’s a noble goal to strive towards, there’s kind of already an accepted Post Malone in the alternative space—Post Malone. He’s been innumerable-times more successful in a cross-pollination of the tribes than even NOT A TOY’s best effort, and stacking this next to his efforts unveil how far out of their league that level is.
And if that sounds harsh, it’s probably because PRBLMS doesn’t give much to work with in terms of being kind towards it. It has good moments, but they’re a drastic minority; it’s put together well in sound, but that’s such an obvious crutch it’s leaning on. Add on how lacking NOT A TOY are in terms their own impulses (and thus, how unfounded the expectations of proper innovation around them are), and this all amounts to incredibly little. It’s hard to even deduce whether there’s space in the current alternative climate for this; there would’ve been a couple of years back, when the idea wasn’t already dated and holding itself together through sheer force of will. Now though, it’s just an easy-to-forget, easier-to-ignore diversion down an alley that no one wants to visit anymore. By the year’s end, this won’t occupy a single thought in your head, guaranteed.
For fans of: Chase Atlantic, Kid Brunswick, Post Malone
‘PRBLMS’ by NOT A TOY is released on 28th July on Fearless Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall