In the 21st century, there’s an increasingly sad and desperate quality to pop culture hedonism. Oddly, this is perhaps most evident in the way that R&B has given way to club music. When former R&B producers and performers embraced dance music, you might have expected an increase in euphoria, an influx of ecstasy. Yet the digitally-enhanced uplift in the records by producers such as Flo-Rida, Pitbull and will.i.am has a strangely unconvincing quality, like a poorly photoshopped image or a drug that we’ve hammered so much we’ve become immune to its effects. It’s hard not to hear these records’ demands that we enjoy ourselves as thin attempts to distract from a depression that they can only mask, never dissipate. A secret sadness lurks behind the 21st century’s forced smile… Drake and Kanye West are both morbidly fixated on exploring the miserable hollowness at the core of super-affluent hedonism. No longer motivated by hip-hop’s drive to conspicuously consume—they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted—Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger, and self-disgust, aware that something is missing, but unsure exactly what it is.
—Mark Fisher, The Secret Sadness of the 21st Century, Electronic Beats
Tears in the Club is a provocative title, and not only because the last few years have seen far too many actual tears in music venues from Bataclan to Pulse to Ghost Ship to BPM Mexico to a massacre in an Istanbul nightclub only a few weeks back. Clubs are supposed to be safe spaces, places where communities can form. They shelter those already feeling isolated and alienated from society by gathering their patrons together as part of a singular event. Clubs are allegiances and unions of listeners, linked to each other through common sound, but it’s easy to overlook kinks and vulnerabilities in this bond, the desolation, and conflict that often does not dissipate at the door.
The DJ, who up until the recent advent of the celebrity hand-waver set maintained a structural need to be integrated into the scenery of the club, may be the club’s loneliest attendant. He stands outside of the action because he’s the master of controls, orchestrating fun for everyone else, but only participating in the party from the sidelines, behind the wizard’s curtain.
Unlike the “secret sadness” that the late Mark Fisher alludes to in the quote above, Kingdom, and the battalion of like-minded producers he has cultivated for his groundbreaking Fade to Mind imprint, have never hidden their malaise. Perhaps that’s because their vernacular is 21st century pop, even if they ostensibly make experimental club tracks. Kingdom (aka Ezra Rubin) is no stranger to the format of slowed trap-inflected R&B/pop. He has worked wonders behind the boards of several hyper-contemporary tracks for Danity Kane’s Dawn Richard (D∆WN) and Kelela over the past few years. Now, he has upped the ante on Tears in the Club, an immersive new conceptual experiment centered around four dour pop tracks, spaced out across the breadth of the record.
These songs are exactly the kind of gorgeously constructed, intimate, and melodically rich pop songs someone from the recent past might have thought we’d be listening to in 2017. They’re futuristic, sophisticated, catchy, and psychedelically wrought. However, they’re also deeply depressive.
The decision to focus on a canvas of future-pop/R&B may lead many to think that this represents some kind of permanent realignment for Kingdom, whose past work, while still deeply expressive, was mainly targeted towards feet rather than heartstrings. The lyric sheet doesn’t exactly dissuade this theory either. “Nothin” featuring Syd of the Internet even goes so far as to paint this fluctuation as capitulation. “My real art is amazing / Ain’t that a shame?”, she intones, giving the false impression that perhaps this whole attempt at the pop record is half-hearted and more about staying financially afloat than charting new territory. “Nothin” is a deep, boozy reflection on the choice to go overground, but made from a nihilistic resolve and, ultimately, a vantage of practicality: “Something’s got to give right now / So this is what it is right now / All or nothin’ / Nothin’ / Didn’t work this hard for nothing’ / So I’m gonna act up, gonna act out/ Gonna stack up, and then cash out.” These cues exist elsewhere on the album too. Mostly instrumental, the transitional track “Into the Fold” begs to be interpreted as an invitation to the dark side, its lyrics limited simply to “Come / Come / To me.” Where? Into the fold, one would guess.
One might even see the trajectory of the entire album in this light. It opens with the forlorn breakup tune “What Is Love”, whose rhetorical question SZA answers by offering a compartmentalization: “Break it down / Fuck it up / Now I see / What is love.” Her tenor in this verdict is not aggressive, but anodyne, if a bit dispirited. Throughout the track amidst the slinky synths are two chants: NBA Jam style grunts on loan from Jam City and SZA herself distorted and hiccupping “back it up”. The latter functions as a literal placeholder (i.e., these are backup vocals) and a detached mechanized force for that compartmentalization, as if she is attempting to download somehow the data set for love. Broken through romantic misfortune, the album sets off in existential crisis, attempting to find solace in the club and finding that it can’t fill voids which seem to have no bottom. The corresponding bookend to “What Is Love” is a “Club Mix” of “Nothin”, but one with a simple house beat rather than the abstract contraptions of Kingdom’s previous EPs. That it’s the least interesting piece on the album seems to confirm the sellout/cash-out cycle alluded to in “Nothin”. It’s surrender.
The easy riposte to the idea that this is a sellout album itself rather than an album tangentially about selling out is the music itself, still a little too odd for the charts even when it’s way too wound down for the clubs. “Nothin” easily rivals as the Internet’s “Girl” as one of the best things Syd has done to date, while vibrant neon jaunt “Down 4 Whateva” might be the best thing SZA’s been involved with to date. Even better still is “Breathless” featuring unknown singer Shacar, an evocative performance in grimy hues, wild breadths of emotion sputtering throughout—confidence, melancholy, pain, desire, and isolation all in the span of three minutes. It too concerns the creeping changes of success (“I’m not sorry because I’m / Blowing up”) and becoming guarded by its trappings (“No weapon formed against me shall prosper / Tied up and alone I get haunted by my pride / So I can sing in front of my phone”), eventually slicing open the surface to display the ache underneath. “I bleed/I bleed/I bleed,” Shacar sings in a sonic interpolation of Beyonce’s “I slay / I slay / I slay” from “Formation”. He resigns to hiding in the work, trailing off his final lines to face this suffering alone: “Constantly grinding out here…you can’t see that / I’m still trapped, and I’m still hurting.”
The energy of “Breathless” bleeds nicely into one of the album’s six non-pop tracks, “Tears in the Club”. “Tears in the Club” is not only the track most reminiscent of Kingdom’s older works, but also comes with specific sonic callbacks to one Kingdom’s most well-known hits, “Stalker Ha” off of his 2011 Dreama EP. The pop cuts wallow in a kind of boozy attachment. SZA assumes an elegantly wasted stance on her two contributions, at first sounding wine-drunk and disoriented on “What Is Love”, slithering on and off the beat, and then predicting before a kind of skin-shedding hook up that “I’m gonna take a sip and lose my way tonight” on “Down 4 Whateva”. “Tears in the Club”, comparatively, is all paranoia and dark feels, a cinematic second act of perpetual anxiety and rootlessness with its sinister piano and trap-does-‘70s horror film vibe.
The rest of the cuts are nothing to skip over either and lend extra weight and resonance to the songs surrounding them, making Tears in the Club an experience best listened to as a whole. “Each and Every Day” is almost off-puttingly centered and well-postured around a traditional beat, perhaps taking cues from Sophie in its minimalism. Its simple rhythm-based chorus cuts out melody altogether and then resumes for mantras of the words “Each and Every Day” while the pitched-up voice of Najee Daniels chirps “ok, ok, ok”. The self-betterment routine continues into the uncomplicated and swoony cut-ups of “Nurtureworld” which beg the listener to “take me away”, as the listener and producer drift together.
Although three years in the making, it’s increasingly hard to hear this or any album without 2017 ears. In the wake of Trump’s despicable first few weeks, I found myself listening more and more to a playlist I’d constructed of intensely melancholy music, realizing that I’d done so because I hadn’t yet given myself permission to be sad. The main takeaway I get from listening to Tears in the Club on repeat is the overwhelming feeling of “you can’t go home again”. “Something’s gotta give right now,” Syd says. SZA takes this a step further saying, “I’ll be into you even when you ain’t around me / I’ll be missing you even when you been around me.” For every transcendent feeling of closeness in the clubs this year, there’ll be plenty others where one couldn’t feel any more distant from who’s standing right next to you. The urgency of being here now vs. the creeping sense of slowly becoming an island haunts this moment, with our interconnected sociality simultaneously culling common causes and confirming our isolationist biases.
Walking back into the club after having all that’s on Kingdom’s mind is like getting jolted by the nightmare trap of “Tears in the Club”. It’s all darkness and anxiety now. Its visceral grip is as pulsatingly real as it is synthetic. The escape that the naïve EDM pop that the turn of the decade offered now seems like the infamous K.C. Green strip “On Fire”, the flames burning around us as the nihilistic fatalism of #YOLO truly sinks in. The only way through is forward, and we’ll need plenty of forward-thinking pop to help with that. We’ll need lots of songs that can help reform the bonds of community that a club can offer, and which pop can alleviate. Solidarity in suffering, a shared loneliness. We can’t deny ourselves the right to be sad any more than we can deny ourselves the right to dance. Kingdom’s album confronts this from a place that, if not deeply personal, at least feels so.
// Notes from the Road
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