Time to retire “cloud-rap.” The term, coined by a friend of the site who would probably rather not be chained to it anymore, once served as a useful descriptor for a thing that was happening on rap’s internet fringes. A few years ago, people like Lil B and Main Attrakionz stood out because their sound, drifting and dazzled and awash in new-age synth sounds and emotively hiccuping vocal samples, was so unlike anything else we were hearing in rap. But then it grew. In A$AP Rocky, cloud-rap found its first star. In the producer Clams Casino, it had its first auteur. And then the sound spread and dissolved and melted into rap’s mainstream, until it was entirely subsumed into the greater whole. Is Drake cloud-rap? Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y? The Weeknd? Kendrick Lamar and Tyler, The Creator at their most chilled-out? You could, conceivably, slap the label onto any of them, which just underlines how little use it has right now. And now Ryan Hemsworth, the most important producer to come out of the cloud-rap internet underground since Clams Casino, has made an album that isn’t particularly cloudy or particularly rappy. Guilt Trips, Hemsworth’s official debut after a couple of years of underground rap beats and Soundcloud remixes, practically demands its own subgenre tag, and I have no idea what that tag is. Guilt Trips is, blessedly, its own thing.
People will, of course, compare Hemsworth to Clams Casino, but they honestly sound very little alike. Clams makes mood music that exists in a fluttering haze: Samples that blur into each other, bass-tones that seem to bubble up from underwater, drums that could almost sound the same backwards and forwards. Hemsworth, by contrast, tends toward the concrete. Every piece of his tracks is crisp and clean, and the individual sounds, the drum hits and vocal stutters and keybaords hums, stand out on their own. Hemsworth has been known to appreciate the dinky and addictive synth melodies of Atlanta strip-club rap — he’s remixed Migos’ “Bando” — and his own tracks take on some of that immediacy. His drum programming is busy and physical; listening to Guilt Trips, you can practically picture him hammering at his MPC pads in the studio. And unlike Clams, whose music really exists best in instrumental form, Hemsworth realy thrives when he pairs is tracks with the right vocalists. His compositions are halfway to pop anyway, and they work best when they’ve got a human voice on board. But that voice doesn’t have to belong to a rapper, and maybe it’s better if it doesn’t.
There is some rap on the album. The Miami avant-rapper Lofty305, half-rapping, lets his voice flicker across Hemsworth’s gasping synths and bass-ripples, pledging eternal fealty in genuinely romantic terms, on the single “Against A Wall.” And on album closer “Day/Night/Sleep System,” Tumblr favorites Haleek Maul and Kitty trade lovestruck verses, Hemsworth leaving the echo on Kitty’s “like Captain America, I wanna stare at ya” line until it stops sounding ridiculous and starts lodging itself in your frontal cortex. But the album’s most affecting songs are the ones that leave rap behind altogether. Opener “Small + Lost” is shivery soul-pop with singer Sinead Harnett sounding trapped in a track that’s attempting to eat itself. “One For Me,” featuring the thin-voiced Tinashe, is like Lumidee’s 2003 playground classic “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)” as seen through a funhouse mirror, all naked devotion and brain-reordering low-end. The short, dizzy “Happiness & Dreams Forever” has an unnamed vocalist, presumably Hemsworth himself, repeating “please don’t trust me” over and over as storms of snares and hi-hats build and swirl. The instrumental tracks on this short album tend to be so filled with things going on – turbulent melodic figures and drums layering themselves all over each other — that there’s really no room for vocals, and you almost don’t notice their absence. After a few listens, it occurs to you that this is an album about something, about falling in love and the way it can make you feel overcome and helpless, at the mercy of forces you can’t hope to control. And that’s another way Guilt Trips separates itself from Clams Casino: Clams would never make something this plainly emo.
While many of the sound on Guilt Trips may be very of-the-moment, the two albums it recalls the most, at least to me, are underappreciated LPs, both of them about a decade old, both of them fascinated with rap without ever quite being of it. In 2001, the British post-rock band Hood released Cold House, an album that flirted with the sounds and textures of deep-left underground rap, with the voices of Anticon MCs Doseone and WHY? (back before the latter’s indie-pop years) flitting elusively across a few songs. But those rap touches on Cold House never felt like clumsy attempts to adapt to a genre; they were there to grab at emotional states that their own broken drones couldn’t quite access. Cold House is a reflection of a reflection, a skittering soundscape that used rap for its mystery rather than for its toughness. And then there was Florida, Diplo’s mostly-forgotten 2004 solo debut. At the time, Diplo and his Hollertronix duo were rising forces in an ascendent genre-blurring warehouse-dance-party scene, and his all-over-the-place DJ mixes felt like revelations. But Florida wasn’t that. It was a strictly interior, mostly-instrumental affair, an attempt to apply the Southern rap and dancehall sonics that he loved to DJ Shadow’s woozy and cinematic instrumental boom-bap. Both of those albums had their missteps, and so does Guilt Trips; I could really do without Haleek Maul here, for instance. But Guilt Trips, like those two albums, also represents something both honorable and exciting. Like them, it pushes its maker outside his comfort zone, using whatever sounds it can find to sketchily outline a certain panicked but contemplative emotional state that doesn’t, perhaps, come naturally to the person making it. And like those two albums, it’s a thicket of sound, one in which you can lose yourself.
Other releases of note out this week:
• Poliça’s immersive art-pop full-length Shulamith.
• DJ Rashad’s Chicago footwork odyssey Double Cup.
• Omar Souleyman’s Four Tet-produced Syrian dabye album Wenu Wenu.
• Katy Perry’s expensive big-pop disappointment Prism.
• CFCF’s synthy, impressionist Outside.
• Fingerprints, the debut album from the Enon offshoot Crooks On Tape.
• Motörhead’s eternally fearsome Aftershock.
• MEN’s post-Le Tigre politicized dance-popper Labor.
• The Donna Summer remix collection Love To Love You Donna.
• Best Coast’s Fade Away EP.
• Matthew E. White’s Outer Face EP.
• Ducktails’ Wish Hotel EP.
• Active Child’s Rapor EP.
• Palehound’s Bent Nail EP.