New Albums From Kaytranada and Skepta Look Past Hip-Hop Trends
In a September 2014 appearance on Sway Calloway's Sirius XM radio show, Sway in the Morning, electronic music producer and DJ Skrillex asked his host — arguably hip-hop's foremost interlocutor, who as a radio and television veteran has chronicled the genre's shift from niche to pop — if he was familiar with Kaytranada, among other exciting new artists. "Not up on those," Sway replied, before a coat-pull from the show's DJ Wonder caused him to reconsider: "I am up on 'em?" "We played his stuff all the time," Wonder confirmed. Sway paused then said ruefully, "My bad. I do know Kaytranada."
That exchange appears as a sample on "Despite the Weather," a moody bossa nova track halfway through Kaytranada's debut album, 99.9%. The Haitian-born, Montreal-bred DJ and producer, now 23, uses the sample to address his odd relationship with hip-hop culture — and the selective amnesia it has about its early sounds.
99.9%, released on XL Recordings earlier this month, remembers all that hip-hop can do. While Kaytranada's rousing live DJ sets, for example, mimic early South Bronx park jams, the track "Glowed Up" employs a call-and-response that also evinces shades of crunk music, a clear Southern influence. The latter features singer Anderson Paak reflecting on his — and, by proxy, Kaytranada's — success: "Walking in the form of elders, I'm glowed up." It's a knowing nod to the acclaim both artists have found wrangling an array of hip-hop traditions in service of their vision.
This collagist approach spans the album. Kaytranada — whose 2012 remix of Janet Jackson's 1993 hit single "If" has been played on many a dancefloor — has resisted being pulled into the amorphous EDM scene, but he doesn't repudiate it, either: "Breakdance Lesson No. 1" is an instrumental homage to floor rockers, while two-step titan Phonte leads an airy r&b number and the Internet's Syd sounds uncharacteristically warm on the snappy "You're the One." Meanwhile, on "Lite Spots," Kaytranada samples Brazilian singer Gal Costa, who, as a member of the influential tropicália movement of the late Sixties, sought to agitate the Brazilian music scene by mixing genres like psychedelic rock and bossa nova. Kaytranada's sped-up and looped sample of Costa's "Pontos de Luz" echoes that history and fortifies the album's celebration of hip-hop's early dynamism.
Today, in part because of the tremendous commercial success of rap, the who and what have trumped the how and why: Race, gender, sexuality, class, region, and nationality have ossified into proof-of-authenticity cards. But the Bronx youth who originated hip-hop in the Seventies weren't looking to establish a new set of rules; like tropicália, they refused society's distinctions of right and wrong — by scratching records that were once considered precious and throwing up uncommissioned art on subway cars with stolen spray cans. Kaytranada seems to prefer this definition, offering a witty quilting of sound across time and genre that embraces the always unfinished form of the culture.
In that sense, he's not unlike the Fugees, a group he reveres. In an interview with Wax Poetics, Kaytranada recalled his taxi driver father giving him their 1996 album, The Score, and the giddiness he felt hearing the shared Haitian ancestry of Wyclef Jean and Pras in their sound: Theirs was a soundtrack not of stale gangsterism and narrow nationalisms but of a slew of styles, the through-line of which was an outsider perspective. It proved to be a gateway for Kaytranada, who decades later is more interested in creating a Basquiat-like canvas of sound than chasing trends or the blessings of the rap moguls on whose walls Basquiat's paintings now proudly hang.
Veteran English rapper and producer Skepta, whose album Konnichiwa was also released this month on Boy Better Know, bristles at similar boundaries. Grime, the British breakbeat-based genre that pulls from local electronic scenes, has had a number of emissaries since its emergence in the early Aughts, notably Dizzee Rascal. But these days, it's Skepta who's become the go-to grime artist for savvy North American rappers looking to expand their reach in a music industry where sales and streams do little to enhance artist profits. Kanye has enlisted his help to rock stages, while stylistic shapeshifter Drake took it a step further, hopping on Skepta's remix of Nigerian singer Wizkid last summer. (On it, Skepta — born Joseph Junior Adenuga to Nigerian parents in Tottenham, a working-class North London enclave — raps about the stigma of growing up a child of African immigrants.)
Skepta's ubiquitous association with grime must feel like a mixed blessing. He frames Konnichiwa, a collection of confessional raps over rancorous beats, as part primer, part lament about the difficulty of representing himself, his community, and grime, at home and abroad. After trading verses with grime elder statesman Wiley over tinkling keys and persistent snares, Skepta includes a recorded conversation with U.K. chart-topper Chip. Interrupting Skepta's angst-riddled mumblings, Chip offers a prophecy: "You got the call from God to do something deeper," a compatriot's reminder that his music has much more going for it than just the current transatlantic interest.
While the album boasts solid contributions (basically endorsements) from Pharrell and Harlem's ASAP Nast, Skepta's artistry shines best on "Man (Gang)," a self-produced track whose anxious drum pattern supports his alternately breakneck and halting flow. On it, Skepta repeats a mantra: "Man get money with the gang, man get girls with the gang, man eat food with the gang, man talk slang to the feds." It's quintessential grime, and by stating his most elemental needs, Skepta is following the breadcrumbs home, translating the journey's hazards into art.
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