Unrequited Dub

Are electronica’s hottest beatmakers the torch singers of 2010?

To break up is to drown, slowly, like a pelican in crude. Deepwater-sized break-ups comprise many of today’s rap themes, and songs of regret for what’s gone and won’t come back have made a comeback in electronica as well. But isn’t a master beatmaker always looking for the next perfect break? If love can feel unrequited, so can dub.

CP Images

CP Images

The whirlpool at the centre of Caribou’s latest ocean of an album, Swim, is the lead single, “Odessa,” a song with a mesmerizing beat based on an unbeatable drum break. And break-up. “Odessa” was released in early January in advance of the rest of the record, and is about a woman deciding tonight’s the night she will leave her unprepossessing man. Forlorn and loaded down with sorrow, keeling to undertows of electronica and hip hop influence, “Odessa” has an addictive, funky drum and bassline. The sound is an adaptation of the 1970s infinity drums of Liquid Liquid’s “Optimo” or “Cavern.” More so Neu!, a pioneering krautrock duo central to Caribou’s sound: “Odessa” takes its cue from the deep grooves and cowbells on endless repeat of a song of separation like “Isi” or “La Bomba—Stop Apartheid World Wide!”but is still as sorrowful as one can be riding a trampoline bassline. “She’s tired of crying, and sick of his lies / She’s suffered him for far too many years of her life,” goes the true-to-life chorus.

Many miles away, in the break-driven, bass-heavy genre of hip hop, a regional independent hit called “Cry for You” from crunk rapper-singer King South, the self-proclaimed “Alabama’s Obama,” takes up Odessa’s story from the point-of-view of the man justifiably left behind. King South autotune-croons take me back over a synthesized handclap and sub thump with lyrics straight from the mouth of an inveterate sinner ashamed of his own charm. His lyrics manipulate and plead with Caribou’s: “You’re my better half, plus you’re all that I have… so baby don’t you go … ” Still, King South admits with a laugh on the lethal refrain that his Odessa made a wise choice, “So many different times I lied to you / you make a nigga wanna cry for you.”

I first heard King South flex his flow on a single for Gucci Mane’s mixtape 4000 Degrees Below Zero. “It’s Over” is another King South break-up banger. The track makes a divorce analogy to describe a difficult life-change, in one’s career, from once being committed to his white girl—cocaine dealing—to now safely single and peddling music. Gucci Mane raps about his ex before handing it over to King South’s whispered melody, “Product of my ex-life, I call that girl my ex-wife / on to the next chick, I had to hit the exit / It’s Over … / no more fuss and fights now, you can leave my life now / no longer my wife now / some things can’t be worked out / It’s over, yeah, yeah, girl, it’s over.”

Gucci Mane put out rap records before, during and after he was released from nine months in jail, and he’s doing for rap in 2010 what Dante did for Beatrice—he has written over a thousand hit lyrics. Considering Gucci’s prolific career has been blindsided multiple times by beef with fellow East Side Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy (the kind that involves both insults and bullets), followed by a prison record for gun and gun-related charges, I sometimes wonder if Gucci ever recorded a better song of love’s labour lost than 2005’s “Bird Flu.” Then I hear 2010’s bakers dozen of semi-official mixtapes—notably perfect is Mr. Zone 6—and feel confident the Gooch has recorded a 2pac’s worth of tracks in the last six months chockablock with bachelor-centric tributes to the dump. His raps are also full of stand-up punchlines—for being best comedian, expect Gucci to receive rapper of year award.

The sweatshop pace of production among rappers these days not only makes it impossible to hold down a relationship, but makes most rock musicians and electronica artists seem decadent. There is a new wave of musicians who sleeplessly release new bedroom electronica dubsteps, as well as moonlight production for rap. Two scenes: this year’s boogie funk computer pastiches from California’s love gods Dâm-Funk, Matty G,Baths, Onra, and Alice and John Coltrane’s nephew, Flying Lotus—every one of whom falls for the snare of the broken hearts club, making scorned beats. And the purple wow sound coming heavily out of Bristol this past year—courtesy of Joker, Gemmy, Ginz, and Guido—shares a love for the 88bpm kicked-out-of-the-bedroom tempo. Flying Lotus and Joker can sound continents apart and still be inspired by a common love for Dr. Dre’s California G-Funk stride. Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma remains the year’s most transcendent boogie of all, an album that breaks body up from soul inasmuch as his aunt Alice Coltrane did on 1978’s Transfiguration.

An upcoming album I expect won’t get much press other than this is Nothing Else, by the young British beatmaker named Lorn; it’s being released on Brainfeeder, the coach house label of none other than Flying Lotus. Nothing Else is a short record of dubstep served ultra-boogie, its cold rhythms divorced from love. Lorn makes laptop electronica on the crispy edge of 2010’s new genre, witch house. Witch house, or drag, is the nihilistic suburban musical result of dropping too many downers while listening to depressed gangsta rap singles—purple Hell mixed with DJ Screw.

There probably won’t be more than a thousand lonely heartbroken beat junkies who’ll feel this Lorn record, but a lot has already been said about witch house this year, and it will get more intense after the genre’s inventors, Salem, release their debut album King Night. Salem has spent the past year or so slipping a few dozen demo tracks and slowed down Gucci remixes onto blogs and YouTube, where the murky new genre rapidly found fans. Witch house was influencing other artists before its founders had even signed a record deal.

But it’s easy to hear in Lorn how witch house begins. Lorn keeps the sound stripped down to the jaded snares and budget dump-you-over-the-phone sub-bass coming from millionaire rap producers in Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans—producers with a string of infidelity hits to their credit. Hear how Salem and Lorn are unfazed to administer the morbid chill of the screwed & chopped riddim, a Robitussin-inspired rap genre whose instrumentals sound like what these white zombies feed on. By way of gangsta rap, Salem and Lorn write wobbly, lethargic, tryptophan-soaked songs about love and loss using slow Mephistophelian growls, angel choirs, and synthesized thunderclaps. It’s an underworldly-feeling music.

King South’s “Cry For You” preaches Alabama’s sex secession and King Night howls existential despair at vamp exes—these Blair Witch break-up songs are for a generation weaned on horror and meth, True Blood, Twilight, the Web. Salem is poised to do something huge when King Night is released, while Lorn’s Nothing Else shall remain one of those deadly ironic classics drowning in the digital Lethe between esoteric sub-genres.

Few pop songs were ever so coated in separation empathy, so slicked over by crude rap-inflected irony, as Caribou’s love song “Odessa,” a shout out from the Solitary North to the Dirty South, the coastal genre that, through its pants-sagging, shop-a-holic infectious id-appeal and its millionaire Garage Band bedroom producers, has touched everything nowadays, from pure pop to witch house. The Dirty South is gushing with summer break up songs, for reasons that are dirtier than ever. Maybe the conditions after Katrina, and now BP, insured the South’s grimy, two-timing sound evermore, one indebted to a pitiless funk minimalism. Take Atlanta’s threesome-loving rap and R&B scene, where 808 handclap & tomtom producers like The-Dream, Zaytoven and Shawty Redd are young bachelor gods. Lorn with Salem, beside Caribou and Flying Lotus, make introverted instrumental music full of rap’s signifying contradictions. However much they refer to it, these beat composers have split from the scenes they love, though they’ve done it to make something that feels individual. Yet the influence of the other genre can be heard in the music of each.

It’s Odessa’s year. A gulf lurches between us. An irreconcilable beef between the past and present, a poison tongue between lovers within songs, between ideas of South, and denial of North, between cliques and genres, between the many kings and the Caribou who sings, “She’s tired of crying and sick of his lies / She’s suffered him for far too many years of her life / Feeling low, and scared what he’ll say / Does he know how over time he drove her away? / She can say…Who knows what she’s gonna say?”

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