The High Five: Childish Gambino Grapples With Oakland Hip-Hop
In preparation for the year's end, we gathered this week's selections with the goal of summarizing the textures and nuances of 2013. What follows is a dense, glittering (though at times downright mopey) collection -- synth-heavy, world-weary, and well-representative of this year's sonic zeitgeist.
Childish Gambino is coming for ya, Oakland.
Rose Lowe - "Games"
You heard it here first: 2013 very well may be remembered as the year of broken, echoing paeans -- the kind that might soundtrack a ruined wedding or a knocked-out boxer's slo-mo descent to the canvas. First there was Kiss Land, a kaleidoscopic tearjerker of an album from the Weeknd; now there's Rosie Lowe, a Brit intent on sharing her profound, reverb-y sadness. "Games" is a warped and Xanaxed old soul ballad, with nods, somehow, to both David Lynch and Sly Stone. Come for the throbbing heartache. Stay for the ever-so-subtle harpsichord overdubs.
Audego - "Liar"
Some quick background on "Audego" before we get down to brass tacks here. They're an Australian duo comprising two members named, perplexingly, "Paso Bionic" and "Big Fella." They count among their influences a reckless diversity of artists, from Public Enemy to Dolly Parton to Wu-Tang to the Andrews Sisters. Some of this makes sense when you hear "Liar," a haunting Rubik's Cube of a song. That the track perpetually teeters on discord is fitting: Instrumentally and lyrically, it's not trying to attempt any sort of reconciliation. Ghostly voices coo; cellos groan menacingly. Even the first few lyrics -- "You just made a huge mistake/and you ought to feel ashamed" -- feel like a deterrent. But stick with this one. It only grows more rewarding as its textures unfold.
Childish Gambino - "Telegraph Ave."
It's a risky endeavor to craft such a geographically specific anthem the way 'Bino does here -- especially an anthem about Oakland, a city whose hip-hop roots run deep. Yet he manages to pull it off, mostly because he positions himself as an outsider from the get-go: He's "driving up the Five" while his Bay Area love interest awaits. "I'm nervous," he contines, "truth be told/Never saw me growin' old/In Oakland." There's not much co-opted, genre-wise, from Bay Area rap, either. None of the jittery sparseness or bawdy braggadocio. The song, a stony and densely-textured exercise in graceful solipsism, doesn't attempt to become Oakland; it just observes. This ends up serving it well.
Solvent - "King Vincent"
It's basically impossible not to smile all the way through this goofy, six-minute electro-pop opus. Solvent, which is the stage name of Jason Amm, has been crafting dense electronica for more than a decade. But it's never felt tidier, sweeter and more patiently though-out than it does here. The satisfaction of listening to "King Vincent," with all its little beeps and blurps and percolations, is roughly equivalent to that of scoring repeatedly (and perhaps while on a small slew of hallucinogenic drugs) in Tetris. It all just seems to lock into place.
Drums of Death -- "Fierce" (Ft. Azealia Banks and Franklin Fuentes)
If there is a distinct niche within which Azealia Banks operates, it's here: at 120 BPM, a bloated kick pulsing under her, a sparse xylophone sample above her, a haunting and enigmatic sample chanted somewhere in the ether. This, she informs us a minute or so into the track, is her "house in the sky." And she sounds at home indeed, all pitter-pattering verses and boasts about diamonds. That this is bona fide "zone-out" music shouldn't be a knock on Banks. Rather, it's a testament to her capacity to cultivate a glossy, complex, and ultimately soothing sonic landscape.