Montreal isn’t the first place you think of when you want the most banging hip-hop produced by club culture, but that may soon change. If and when it does, you will have Ghislain Poirier to blame. He’s been slowly perfecting his abstract aesthetic on his own terms since the turn of the millennium, and now, with his debut for the legendary Ninja Tune, his greatest opportunity has presented itself. This is his coming out party. The question is, how will he rank as a host?
Poirier’s first two full-lengths, 2001’s Il N’y A Pas De Sud and 2002’s Sous Le Manguier are almost unrecognizable by contrast to No Ground Under. By and large, they were ambient downtempo albums, with any hip-hop leanings concealed under waves of reverb and melancholy indulgence. His mind was not focused on the “Bounce Le Gros” so much as sparse minimal techno, echoing world-influenced soundscapes through bedrooms and chill stages. They were totally French named, received little release outside of Quebec and, thus, made little impact on the global village.
Shortly after that, Ghislain started to loosen up. 2003 saw his Conflits LP for Intr_version strike a chord in Canada with more pronounced beats pushing his frozen samples and subtle electronic tweaks into exciting new territories of abstract hip-hop, yet maintaining the chill vibe. That album also witnessed the first appearance of rhymes, which are hard to pull off well in French, but damned if they don’t work flawlessly with Poirier. That year also marked his debut album for Chicago’s own Chocolate Industries with Beats As Politics, which worked the American angle and garnered Ghis some international recognition with a dedicated focus nun-punching hip-hop underpinned by warping basslines and an increased interest in dancehall. Séba, the only guest emcee on Conflits, graces two such tracks on BAP that are positively teeming with riddim, pointing towards things to come. But as good as those two mini-album teasers were, they still had a bit of an amateurish, occasionally demo like edge to them.
Breakupdown (2005) was an undeniable breakthrough for Ghislain and one of the last great Chocolate Industries releases. The album percolated a perfect blend of bizarre but toasty kitchen sink hip-hop—oozing more pot haze and psilocybin than two copies of Quasimoto’s 2005 full-length The Further Adventures of Lord Quas—and mind melting techno the likes of which moistens candy ravers’ dreams. Séba returned to lend his words, this time to a true hip-hop track. Big Dada’s Lotek H-Fi also dropped rhymes on a sick Beta Band like downtempo beat, but the Beans (Antipop Consortium) trip on “Cold As Hell” takes the guest appearance cake with the biggest liquid synth-hop style this side of Danny Breaks. The instrumental “Return to Lose” nearly took my head off the first time I heard it, with its skipping string sample clicking in an eerily precise style. The whole album was a beautiful, beautiful nightmare start to finish.
Chocolate Industries kinda dropped off the face of the earth shortly after Breakupdown‘s release, but Ghis had plenty to keep him busy. His pet club night, Bounce Le Gros dominated Montreal with a steady diet of grime, rap, soca, dubstep, and everything in between. His demand as a remixer skyrocketed simultaneously, reconstructing the likes of Buck 65, Bassnectar, Lady Sovereign, Pole, Cadence Weapon, and dozens more. He even founded his own label, Rebondir, and debuted it with an EP of the same name. So lethargy is not to blame for Ghis taking such an uncharacteristically long time in coming out with his new album, a whole two years (which feels like a while when he previously had five records in as many years).
No Ground Under continues Poirier’s upward trajectory as his first appearance on for the biggest independent label in the world, Ninja Tune. And yet, what should be his crowning achievement feels like a missed opportunity. Never before has a Ghislain Poirier album been so thoroughly engrossed with what he refers to as “cosmopolitan bass and chunky digital dancehall”. Where Breakupdown put most of its emphasis on big synth sounds ripped from angrily forgotten techno, gooey basslines, and choice samples, No Ground Under is all overlapping ganja’d-up bass with more vocals than ever before. Basically, it has lost all of its subtlety. “City Walking” rises up like cream with a standard hip-hop instrumental—fluffing up a flute and natural drums with a deluge of manipulated sound parodies—and a choice flow from DJ Format collaborator Abdominal, who muses about the happenings in downtown windows as he bustles by with his headphones on. “Exils” also separates itself with sub ripping bass and violin accompaniment, while Mr. Lee G’s shot on “Dem Na Like Me” is the closest thing here to “Cold As Hell” musically.
Pretty much everything else is party dancehall, more slickly produced than ever before, which does nothing for me in the slightest. Getting yelled at by Face-T and Zulu just isn’t my cup of tea, even if their intentions are good, and Omnikrom’s “Jusqu’en Haut” gets more annoying every time I hear it. They sound like teenagers. Granted, that riddim influence has been a part of Poirier’s life for many years, but its death grip on this album is mildly disappointing. It seems more and more these days that when someone gets an opportunity to make a Ninja Tune album, they really try to make a Ninja Tune sounding album instead of just being themselves. As such, No Ground Under will serve fans of the label very well, providing all the soca anthems and distorted bass they have come to expect, but long time fans of Ghis may find it a bit lacking. Bring back the techno.