I was branded a heretic and briefly cast to the nether back in 2010, when I dared suggest Kanye West quit the rap game to return full-time to the booth. This was not an assault on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which - I don’t mind telling you - is one of my favorite records. Instead, call it my guess that high art about Halloween and pagan allegory signaled that this millionaire was running out of shit to say.
And now… well now we have Yeezus, which is history’s best-sounding testament to self-deification, hangovers, menstrual cycles, alimony as a form of lynching, sensible pairings of vaginas and sauces, Star Wars, and cheating on your bitch as a Christmas present for the whole family.
Okay, I can’t judge too harshly: in spite of myself, Yeezus is my favorite record of 2013. But even as one among his most zealous defenders, I sense Yeezy’s nearing an apogee he won’t escape - like a human ouroboros being devoured by its own asshole. My enthusiasm for his next (bankable) artistic triumph is outpaced by the morbid question “What the hell is he going to say next, and can I accept it without great harm to my moral constitution?”
Cam Bell once said Kanye West is more like John Lennon (also a jerk, don’t forget) than anyone. And he’s right. The world’s finally got a black Beatle. But, what we deserve now is an innocent Phil Spector. A producer - one other than Quick-Throw-Money-At-It!!! Rick Rubin - who is monolithic and signature in a landscape otherwise teeming with thousands of nameless (let’s be honest) amateurs. Actually, a producer who releases Production Albums, featuring different artists track-to-track. Who better than the hitmaker mastermind who gave rap its soul back, and mixed “All Falls Down,” “Jesus Walks,” “Slow Jamz,” “Through The Wire,” “Touch the Sky,” “Gold Digger,” “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Gone,” “Champion,” “Stronger,” “Flashing Lights,” “Homecoming,” “Big Brother,” “Heartless,” “Amazing,” “Love Lockdown,” “Power,” “All of the Lights,” “Runaway,” “Lost in the World,” “No Church in the Wild,” “Niggas in Paris,” and “Otis” in the process?
And those are just his own songs. I mean... goddamn it.
See, if there’s one definitive limit to pop album (qua album) quality in 2014, it’s tracklist consistency. Executive producers can only do so much to stitch together a coherent document when your booth's hosting a militia of underlings, all of whom push styles they’re trying to get rich with. A handful of last year’s most notable records, by production size: Matangi, ten producers; ARTPOP, ten; Beyonce, nineteen (nineteen!); Marshall Mathers LP 2, eighteen; Prism, ten; Nothing Was the Same, eighteen. Each of these records can claim at least one magnificent charting single, but all suffer (some more, some less) from stretches that just don’t work.
Which is how we arrive at goofy alien Sonny Moore, who’s decided to become Phil Spector when most of us weren’t paying attention. We treat Skrillex as if he’s an artist, and there’s no good reason we shouldn’t: he tours, steals the show in music videos, has a look that’s made him famous, is incredibly divisive in his genre, and, you know, he cuts records. But peep the production credits on his new Recess, what’s technically his major label debut. It’s an inverted modern pop album: one principle producer mixing thirteen vocal performers.
That could be why Recess sounds everything and nothing like most of its great contemporaries. Yes, it’s a goddamn mess of post-modern genre study, with traces of Reggae, Afrodrums, the Middle East, acid rap, house, ambient, indietronica (whatever the hell that is), indie acoustic, barbiturate carnivalia, and Playstation One - but it’s a goddamn mess of post-modern genre study contained within a broader vision of the brostep this scheming little imp invented. Let me put it another way: Recess is realized, it flows - despite all the laws of noise that say resolutely it should not.
There are recent counterexamples - artists you might say got this right sooner. But the two notables fail here. When DJ Shadow tried this Spector thing in The Less You Know, the Better, he came off schizo and aggressive; while starship barnacle Diplo has done a marvelous job surrounding himself with talented acquaintances. He even made a baby with one.
Recess is instead a lone guy getting ideas out his system with a little help from friends you probably haven’t heard of: the almost-were Ragga Twins duo lets him invent Reggae-brostep (mon-bro?) in “All Is Fair in Love and Brostep,” and then reinvent it six tracks later with “Ragga Bomb;” “Dirty Vibe” is a kpop rap crew rave banger clearly inspired by a seven year old YouTube video… in the key of dubstep; “Ease My Mind” is a Niki & The Dove’s (who’s?) dabke love song about love songs that replaces the mejwiz with Sonny’s unmistakable machine fart grind; and “Fire Away” plays us out with Moby-brostep piano (can I call it Broby pianbro?) courtesy of international superstar Kid Harpoon. Right. Did I mention darling (but still little league) Chance the Rapper whirlwinds into the middle of this thing with two tabs and a brass section?
And just so you know Sonny's not outsourcing all the heavy labor to the unjustly compensated, note he’s just as rangey and fun on his own. Consider “Doompy Poomp,” which is either Skrillese or Swedish for “Humpty Dumpty sat on a mushroom;” followed next by “Fuck That,” which proves the guy who adopted his AIM handle for a stage name also played a lot of Crash Bandicoot Warped.
What I’m trying to say is: Skrillex is eating other genres whole without bothering to invite genre figureheads to the table. He shits out something a little different every time - but it’s always Skrillesque and therefore it’s always captivating.
Until now it has seemed that so much great music - from A$AP Rocky to Gaga to, ironically, Yeezus - has conscripted brostep in the service of the new hotness; but Recess suggests with astonishing force that it may be the other way around. You’ll find this record’s best hook in “Ragga Bomb,” when the Ragga Twins are looped shouting “Drop the, drop the bomb” to buttress another one of Skrillex’s signature riffs (add it to the canon). Mixed in with this madness is a comically twee elf heard squealing ‘pop, pop, pop, pop’ like it’s fighting for its life. That sounds about right to me. In fact, it sounds perfect.
PS. What you've just read is sort of a sequel to a piece about MIA and Gaga I wrote a few months ago. Check it out.