Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"James Drake" and the latter's weird prescience

The first time I heard Drake's "Best I Ever Had" all the way back in the winter of 2009, I remember thinking, "Really?" This was rap's new wunderkind, the kid who would unite the mainstream and the blog-trolling hipsterati and bring balance to the Force? Kid Cudi was the next big thing to beat, I thought. He had a flashier sound and an absolutely killer first single ("Day 'n' Nite"), and he didn't get his start on a Canadian teen drama.1

But Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi's ambition, though grand, turned out scattershot results. 2009's Man on the Moon: The End of Day was just as bloated and pretentious as its title would suggest. It flirted briefly with greatness (second single "Pursuit of Happiness" was nearly as good as "Day 'n' Nite"), but the rest of the album seemed limp and unfocused.

Drake's So Far Gone, meanwhile, turned out to be so popular that he could hold off his debut proper (Thank Me Later) until June of 2010. The opening salvo from the album (the admittedly great "Over") turned out to sound like little else on the record, even if it evinced the same kind of "whining about being famous" aesthetic that the album did as a whole.

It was the "deep cuts" on the record that signaled a forward-thinkingness that one rarely sees outside of albums not released by somebody named Kanye. Cuts like "Fireworks," "Shut It Down," and "Karaoke" were glorious slices of barbitural electro 2, the kind of music that made you feel sexy and ennui-ridden at the same time.

And now that seemingly everyone in the slightly-not-mainstream - Odd Future's Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, How to Dress Well - is on the sad 'n sexy electronics train, Aubrey "Drake" Graham is beginning to look like he could really bring balance to the Force. This suspicion is given further credence by James Drake, a new mashup album by Philly DJs Bombe (Tim Shaw) and Mr. Caribbean (Luis Angel Cancel) which combines Drake's music with James Blake, another purveyor of electronic existentialism.

This is not, first of all, an album of Drake spitting over James Blake productions. If that prospect sounded as tantalizing to you as it did to me, you may be initially put off by James Drake. Only one track ("Fear Logic Freestyle") lets Drake get more than a few non-manipulated words out.

And if you were expecting a track-by-track riff on Blake's spectacular self-titled debut released earlier this year, you'll also be disappointed. In reality, James Drake is less a product of the "ooh those sound the same!" gimmick that most mashups slide on than it is a true merging of sensibilities. Shaw and Cancel are clearly gifted composers, and James Drake is evidence of the kind of brilliant synthesis that Blake himself is known for. Blake made his name on the England's dance circuit by combining brief snatches of R&B vocals with his own brand of minimalist dubstep. Shaw and Cancel view Blake and Drake's discographies in the same way the former sees his own sample-sources: take only what you need, and make it your own.

The "old' buzz band.
The stylistic descendants of Drake 'n Blake 3 have transformed wholesale our concept of a "buzz band" over the last few months. The titans of music snobbery - Pitchfork, Stereogum, Gorilla vs. Bear - have been infatuated with hip-hop for some time, but their 2010 end-of-year-lists were still dominated by the dreamy guitar pop of Deerhunter, LCD Soundystem's hyper-self-conscious dance music, and the aural sunstroke of Beach House (albeit with Kanye often at the top of the list). And while they've also praised assorted tracks by the likes of Beyonc√© and Rihanna, their albums have earned significantly less praise.

But it's looking increasingly like these same sites' 2011 lists will be dominated by groups like the Weeknd, who despite their grim narcotic haze could be slipped into an unsuspecting sorority-girl party mix without the host getting too many weird looks. And though an R&B crooner who sings about "thes[es] on Islam" is hitherto unheard of on KISS FM, lo and behold that Frank Ocean's 4 "Novacane" just cracked the Billboard R&B top 50. Tom Krell's ethereal bedroom project How to Dress Well is unlikely to see the same kind of mainstream success, but his recent feature on Active Child's "Playing House" shows that the guy could probably write a chart-topper if he tried.

Drake and Blake may be more successful/more obscure than the above, but the arrival of James Drake 5  shows that both of them could see the writing on the wall a year before any of these guys. Hail to the king(s).

1 It's worth noting that I may be the only one who thinks that the careers of Drake and Kid Cudi are in any way related.
2 I'd worry about contributing to the glut of unnecessary generic terms, but this may be a case where lack of ability to influence the cultural conversation is a good thing.
3 Kill me.
4 Ocean's debut mixtape is available right here for free. Snatch it up before Def Jam releases it as an EP next month and yanks it off the web.
5 Also 100% free of charge right here. Seriously, who needs theft?