Young L: Final Fantasy

Something is amiss in Based World. Lil B’s apartment building caught fire last week. His teenage neighbor pounded on his door as the flames spread, and he escaped. He seems okay, but it’s hard to ignore the impulse to view the incident as a harbinger of some greater metaphysical ill, a hint of cosmic misalignment that can only be communicated through the Based God. And though Young L, the mastermind of B’s old group the Pack, has been known for his video game bloops and indulgent bass throughout his nearly 10-year production discography, his music has turned inward, his larger-than-life productions hunching in on themselves, reflecting a preoccupied mind rather than a packed function. His latest mixtape, Final Fantasy, continues the melancholy path he’s been forging since 2013, one on which he’s never stopped to rest for too long. 

It’s easy to forget, these days, that Lil B was never really the most essential member of the Pack. That honor went to Young L, the quartet’s in-house producer as well as a rapper, in whose home studio they recorded their first two mixtapes, the stuff that got them signed by Too $hort. It’s clear he’s always been the idea guy, and his production choices shaped the Pack’s aesthetic: rubbery, hyphy-indebted knock, but looser, rougher, with enough empty space for sounds to vibrate off one another, in many ways an early glimpse at the turn-up efficiency of the minimal club sounds that have dominated not just West Coast rap but radio in general in recent years. Post-Pack, as Lil B has grown into his role as swag-rap shaman, Young L has quietly pursued his own solo career, and while he may not wield his influence as visibly as Lil B, he’s usually a couple steps ahead of the game.

Young L’s early 2010s solo projects were informed by video game sounds, Bay Area house party tunes, flat, bright, anime slickness, and an alien truther’s stoned commitment to cosmic unpredictability. Underwritten tapes like 2011’s DOMO-KUN or 2012’s split with Soulja Boy, Mario & Domo Vs. the World, were early success stories within the intersection of rap and EDM sounds. Raucous bangers like “Loud Pockets” and “All Gold Everything”, with their destructive bass and glitchy video game bloops, beat EDM-trap at its own game, slightly ahead of guys like TNGHT and Baauer, and often with more finesse. But something snapped for Young L in 2013: he had his 808s & Heartbreak moment, or probably more accurately, he got older, hitting the point at which “swag” is no longer an appropriate response to the gamut of life experiences. His YFGOD mixtape explored neon-lit, night-driving cinematics, somewhere between Kanye’s “Robocop”, Justice’s , and the Drive soundtrack. Months later, on his Convulsion EP, he abandoned rap altogether and sunk into the murky melodrama of Clams Casino-style instrumental beat-making, the most depressive stuff of his career.

Final Fantasy isn’t as sharp of a departure as Convulsion—at the very least, it’s recognizably a rap tape—but it shares a similar headspace: anxious, bittersweet, nostalgic for something vague and possibly nonexistent. Over a concise seven tracks, Young L probes light-headed cloud-rap balladry, blown-out trap scuzz, and somber, liturgical R&B. Its introductory suite traffics in the wistful Imogen Heap-core of many of Lil B’s most gut-wrenching Clams Casino collaborations, that unlikely sweet spot between swag rap and “The O.C.” soundtrack. Things get more interesting from there: a pair of staggering, bottomless trap songs, “Doors Open” and “U Know What I Mean”, provide counterpoints to long-standing allegations that Young L’s tepid rapping is dead weight to his innovative production. Tape highlight “$ugar Ray” wallows in last night’s pastel afterglow: over two-and-a-half minutes, L channels Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” pimp waking up in a puddle of drool, DJ Khaled surveying his kingdom, unmoved and with Four Loko in hand, in the “I’m on One” video, and DJ Screw’s Late Night Fuckin’ Yo Bitch tape. There’s the detached menace of “Slam Dunk”, the tape-closing Lil B collaboration featuring the hardest based freestyle in recent memory, shouting out fellow Pack brother Stunnaman.

None of this represents any sort of bigger-than-itself artistic statement, and it probably won’t stand the test of time, but all that’s besides the point. There’s been a planned obsolescence to Young L’s work from the very beginning, a byproduct of a music career inextricably tied to the Internet (“Vans” would be nothing without MySpace). It’s a survival tactic for continued relevance as an independent artist whose music exists primarily in a digital space, and it’s perfectly suited for restless idea guys like Young L. These songs don’t need to exist for years down the road so much as they need to exist right now, in this specific moment, as snapshots of time, place, and mood, and then they need to move on. There’s no need to linger for too long—everything happens too fast for that. It’s no coincidence that Young L drifted away from explicitly West Coast sounds around the same time that stuff had begun to blow up nationally, thanks to DJ Mustard, YG, and HBK Gang. For a guy like L, who doesn’t rely on music financially (he’s got a successful clothing line, Pink Dolphin), there’s no need to stress over the pursuit of hits or pump out 20-track mixtapes in hope that something sticks. He’s free to follow his impulses, no matter how ephemeral, and though it may not have rendered him the most visible of his Pack brethren, it’s resulting in the most reliably intriguing solo catalog. Young L’s sound may have evolved, but his strategy hasn’t: Set the trends, keep it moving, and watch the wave crest behind him.  

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Arca: Xen

There’s a moment on Xen, Arca’s full-length debut, when it feels as if the album—hell, the world—is coming to pieces. It happens during the fifth song, “Sisters”, which opens with digital noise strafing across limpid chords, like the Stuxnet virus attacking a high-end aquarium. Woozy keys and LinnDrum beats are hard-panned to the left channel, while the right channel alternates between silence and piercing sinewaves. Every now and then, the stereo imaging corrects itself and we’re treated to a few bars of pleasantly symmetrical funk, but it’s torn asunder every time, the landscape leveled by that tinnitus-grade screech. It’s like Prince versus Merzbow, Purple Rain and pink noise locked in mortal combat in some distant-future holodeck. It is a fucked up scene.

It would be a bold move for any debut album—and the iTunes helpdesk will be getting emails about “faulty” MP3s—but it’s particularly audacious given the trajectory of the Venezuelan-born producer Alejandro Ghersi’s career. He’s got a handful of releases to his name so far, including 2012’s Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, a pair of bewildering EPs that threaded glassy digital synths with sped-up vocals and chopped’n’screwed stutterbeats, all as twisted and contorted as the weird, milky appendages pictured on their sleeves. Beyond that, though, Arca is best known as a next-generation super-producer, or a potential one, anyway. He’s already produced some of FKA twigs‘ best work, he’s co-producing Björk‘s next album, and he had a hand in four songs on Kanye‘s Yeezus.

But Xen, named for Ghersi’s ambiguously gendered alter ego, shows that Arca’s brush with the big time has not softened him. Nothing else on the album is quite as violent as “Sisters”, but all of it feels gripped by the same sort of tension. Kick drums stutter and stumble; rhythmic patterns fall apart in mid-song. A few of the beat-oriented tracks, like “Fish”, have come completely untethered from the rigid grid that usually governs electronic music’s timekeeping. Sounding like a hardstyle rework of Laurie Anderson‘s “O Superman” made with a broken MIDI clock, it flaps at the edges like a tarp with a busted tent pole. Aside from a few relatively placid sketches recalling Harold Budd or Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, the palette tends to emphasize hammered metal, broken glass, and melted plastic; plucked tones and bent notes and nails-on-a-chalkboard sheets of dissonance. (The strident synths of “Tongue” sound like they’ve been inspired by the shower scene in Psycho.) Taken as a whole, it is an album about unstable unities, things that cannot easily hold together, wholes breaking to pieces and being put back together again in new and unfamiliar shapes.

Even the pacing of the album seems to move in fits and starts. From the dramatic opener, “Now You Know”, all elastic arpeggios and rocket-launch glissandi, he feints left into the Harold Budd homage “Held Apart”, and from there it’s on to the schizophrenic “Xen”, a song divided between metallic locust-swarm passages and Fairlight fantasias flecked with synthetic birdsong. “Slit Thru”, a downcast Dem Bow number, gives way to the languorous and atmospheric “Failed”, a meandering synthesizer jam that wouldn’t sound out of place on Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo, a mixtape of Japanese ambient pop from the 1980s. From there, the pizzicato string synths of “Family Violence” lead into the reggaeton-leaning “Thievery”, the closest thing to a single on the album. And so on, all the way through the anticlimactic (but still exhilarating!) closer, “Promise”, with its aimless string plucks and blast-furnace rumble. Xen feels less like a narrative arc than an amalgam of two- and three-minute chunks that might work just as well on shuffle. That’s not a criticism. To the contrary: the album’s mazelike shape is an indicator of how much lies beneath the surface. You really could get lost in this thing.

It’s been a while since it felt like there was anything really, categorically new in popular music, or even semi-popular music. As Simon Reynolds’ Retromania argued, the story of the century so far has mostly been one of collaging together the bits and pieces of earlier decades. Gradually, however, it is becoming clear that something is cresting the horizon, and while it’s too early to make out the particulars of its shape—this lumbering behemoth with the Teflon gleam and Transformer joints and image-mapping skin—it is getting closer.

This new thing is not a genre, exactly; call it a style, a sensibility, a veneer. It has to do with computers and digital sound and digital imagery. It has to do with representation and malleability, the idea that sound and image can be stretched and twisted and copied ad nauseam. It revels in digital gloss and grit, in bent tones, in smeared and frozen reverb tails. Extreme compression, schizoid pith: rap vocals broken down to monosyllables, a single “Huh” as metonym for everything that’s happened between the Sugarhill Gang and now. History reduced to a USB stick.

It’s not necessarily sci-fi in its themes—not, say, in the way that Detroit techno celebrated cybernetics and space travel—but there’s still something inherently futuristic about its portrayal of technology as something tangible and even sensual, its suggestion that data has texture and heft. It spins code into a second skin. (I realize that that description doesn’t sound that far off from The Matrix—a 1999 film that, these days, we’re likelier to read as kitsch than as prophecy—but this stuff is different; it’s less Keanu than Cronenberg.) You can make out its traces in the work of people like Actress, Oneohtrix Point Never, Evian Christ, FKA twigs, Berlin’s Janus crew, and even PC Music, and it feels like it’s coming to a head on Arca’s Xen. The next few years—his next few years—are going to be interesting. 

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Kindness: Otherness

Adam Bainbridge is a member of a group of voracious, industrious artists—among them Devonté Hynes, Solange, Sky Ferreira, and Kelela—who consider themselves “pop.” It’s a group that values collaboration, guesting on one another’s albums and who, increasingly, are dipping their toes into popular music as producers and writers. “You’ll never guess who I just worked with,” is, these days, a popular volley between Bainbridge and his former flat-mate Hynes, both now in-demand collaborators for more traditionally popular artists. They value the word “pop,” presumably, not because they want to be judged against current popular music but because defining yourself as a pop artist means never having to say you’re sorry: you can work in whatever idiom you want, with whoever you want, in whatever manner. There’s a freedom to pop music not availed to anyone who defines themselves as an indie rocker, or a punk, or a soul singer.

One of the chief curiosities of Otherness, Bainbridge’s second album as Kindness, is trying to understand what this freedom means in the context of his careful, quiet compositions. Bainbridge’s music sounds nothing like the current maximalist strain of popular music, and it sounds only a little like certains kinds of popular music from decades past. It’s more deliberate and varied than Bainbridge’s debut album, World, You Need a Change of Mind, a pleasant indie-disco record lacking in ambition.

Bainbridge aims higher on Otherness, setting his sights on pristine studio gems. He expands his arrangements, enlists collaborators (Hynes and Kelela chief among them), and dispenses with the cover songs that buoyed World. Bainbridge constructs his tracks largely with piano, horns, and bass, free of guitar. His lyrical currency is that most pop of topics: love lost and found. On Otherness, Bainbridge is a descendent of artists like Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Bryan Ferry: self-serious rogues who whipped the undomesticated wilds of jazz, disco, and R&B into digestible platters. Such is the M.O. of Otherness: throw everything at the wall, very tastefully.

Bainbridge is a standout producer, and Otherness crackles with crisp filigrees and luxe baubles. The soft-pedaled funk of tracks like “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “With You” show lovely restraint, while welterweight breaks and brisk hi-hats keep “World Restart” and “This Is Not About Us” from blanching. “I’ll Be Back” is a lavish, slo-mo house lullaby. There is a rare clarity and fidelity to Otherness‘ arrangements.

But, beautiful as they are, no one inhabits them. The only source of tension on Otherness is the disconnect between the album’s sumptuous vistas and the dull songwriting that roams them. Otherness burdens its precision with unimaginative melodies and plodding tempos (“For the Young”, “It’ll Be Ok”). Bainbridge moans wanly during “8th Wonder” (“I’m thinking about my baby now/ Yeah”) before interrupting the track with a jarring guest verse (during which M.anifest shouts out Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, lest you have any doubts about Otherness‘ smothering sincerity).

Bainbridge, doleful and even keeled on World, opens up his voice here but proves too thin and affectless for the kind of soulful interjections he wishes upon “This Is Not About Us” and “I’ll Be Back”. When Robyn takes lead on the jaunty “Who Do You Love?” the effect is like removing your earplugs at a concert, exposing yourself to an almost violent level of detail.

Most irksome is “Geneva”, a musty, choral ballad that consists largely of one line—”If you could read my mind/ You know what you’d find”—repeated mantra-like through the song, something that initially scans as quiet reflection but quickly reveals itself to be gibberish (seriously: if you could read his mind—but you can’t—you wouldn’t even need to read his mind). “Geneva”, one trifle repeated ad nauseam, is nearly six minutes long. Otherness is full of moments like this, drawn-out tiltings at romantic windmills that too often resolve themselves in near parody. When Hynes and Tawiah trade deep questions on “Why Don’t You Love Me”, they sound less like star-crossed lovers and more like two very confused people quixotically locked in song. “With You” features two sultry saxophone solos that mostly smack of The Simpsons and Bill Clinton.

Pop music has plenty of tolerance for vapidity and emptiness, but you’ve got to be able to sell it. Look no further than Hynes’ “It Is What It Is” if you want an example of a banality contorted into substance. You wonder if Bainbridge recognizes that something’s missing: “Making pop music that’s less immediate than other engineered pop, sometimes you need a helping hand that explains where it’s coming from or the emotional universe it lives in.” Maybe Otherness‘ emotional universe requires context, but who other than Bainbridge would provide it? Otherness isn’t just less immediate than other pop music; it’s less self-aware, and way less fun.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork