Maya Jane Coles’s Smooth “Flight”


In 1999, a DJ named Stéphane Pompougnac launched a compilation series named after his workplace, the Hôtel Costes. The actual hotel is exclusive in the way that everything expensive is exclusive; 700 euros a night is the starting price for a “classic room.” The hotel décor is exclusive in a different way: the dark, swooping wood and flowered drapes are the symbols of an older generation’s gentility, which the guest will ostensibly spoil by being young, debauched and smoky, and at one with the act of consumption. You are the teenager staying in the relative’s house you pay for.

A Discogs page describes Pompougnac’s musical aesthetic for the hotel as “lounge electronica,” which is a great way of encapsulating something that both doesn’t exist and exists in many, many places. On that first volume of the Costes compilations, one of Pompougnac’s own interludes samples Tom Scott’s “Sneakin’ In the Back.” Those who didn’t know Scott’s 1974 original still probably recognized the sample: Unaltered, the drums and keyboards served as the backbone of Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines,” the title track of the 1991 album that still serves as a template for trip-hop, a genre that neither took off nor left. A ghost of American hip-hop, trip-hop is denatured and dislocated, meaning it can stretch an ambient layer of Americanness, blackness, or late-twentieth-century aesthetics over any group of people, like a mist. Elsewhere on the album, an outfit known as De-Phazz uses the Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip,” the drumbeat of which powered Eric B. and Rakim, P.M. Dawn, and a hundred remixes, and which signifies, more than any other sound, What Europeans Thought Hip-Hop Was in the Nineties.

The Hôtel Costes compilations, which stopped at volume fifteen in 2011, combined this trip-hop glaze with soft house variations that will never overwhelm lobby chatter. And until Maya Jane Coles’s new double album, Take Flight, there didn’t seem to be much reason to think about any of the fifteen volumes of Hôtel Costes unless you wanted to remember what hotels felt like before the 2009 crash and Airbnb. The ungenerous way to hear the Hôtel Costes sound is to think of the through-line connecting the Gap, hotels with chairs that look like big golden hands, and deracinated versions of music that once held enough promise and threat to make people uncomfortable. What better way to sell a night or three away from home? Defanged danger. The generous take on a blend of light house and lighter hip-hop is that pleasure, or more specifically, being pleasant, is a quality that is not just underrated but unacknowledged in the critical moment. If you want to put on something that works but doesn’t work you, Take Flight is very much the thing.

Coles is a skilled DJ and producer — two entirely different things that both happen to be true in this instance — who is known to the world for her 2010 single “What They Say,” which producer Nineteen85 slowed down and sampled for Nicki Minaj’s “Truffle Butter” in 2015. Coles’s original is almost straight acid house, or close enough to sound like an early-Nineties obscurity. The vocal, also heard on the Minaj, is one of those floating snippets that tags delirium and regret equally well: “You know.” A nameless woman singing, the defanged danger in so many songs. Coles doesn’t just sound like trip-hop; she has the same non-territorial, open-minded, voracious feeling of Nineties British producers — there is a casual sense of inclusion on Take Flight that recalls much of the best U.K. dance production, a way of collecting sounds that is unconcerned with territorial claims that originators can get hung up on.

Her 2013 debut album, Comfort, is better only by virtue of not being as long as Take Flight. (Perhaps the 24 tracks on Take Flight are a bid to rake in more streaming revenue, because there isn’t another obvious reason.) The strong tracks are close enough to a solid seven, enough reason for any album to exist.

The first single, “Weak,” blends up most of what Coles does across the album. She is unusually good at two things any producer in the post-song era needs to master: individuating sounds and pacing. When you’re not necessarily going to write a song but you need your track to move like a song, each bit has to be distinct. If there’s no chorus to sweep everything out of the way, you’ve got to clean as you go. All the motifs on “Weak” link together to echo the discursive shape of a beat like “Ashley’s Roachclip,” a pattern that moves but not too quickly and not too vigorously. Though there are verses, the vocal that sticks is Coles herself singing, “You make me weak inside, you make me weak,” which loops dozens of times. It feels distant, as if Neneh Cherry’s voice had been sampled and looped over the dub version of the original.

Coles’s original tracks often play like remixes; even when she has room to create a full lyric, she usually opts to cycle a few words for an entire song. “Werk” brings up the tempo to some variant of house and balances a single, droning keyboard chord against a curly-quote bassline that clips onto the track without ever fully entering. “Running through the night, in the last light” is our only phrase, sung by Coles or someone very much like her, and it is made silvery with filters. Somehow this is enough. Coles knows how and when to change.

The vocals ultimately don’t determine the personality in Coles’s work. The feeling comes from the spatial relationships, the exits, the entrances, and the tonalities. “Old Jam” may be the best track here. The beat is now just straight-up Nineties hip-hop, rescued from a late Soul II Soul remix or a Candy Flip single. Coles has only a couple of elements to work with, maybe both of them stringed instruments originally? Unimportant. What happens is that a snaky two-note ascending motif crab-walks along through the vocal shrapnel until the longer half-time melody enters and you don’t mind doing this for five minutes. It could have a full vocal over it, sure. But why build up something that any DJ will then strip down to refashion? The version that will go on the compilation will be the one with the hint of a vocal, the outline of a person rather than a person. If you want space to find yourself, Take Flight has room.