At her very, very, very best and most accessible, Vanese Smith (aka Pursuit Grooves) walks a line between the more explorative moments of Erykah Badu and classic Lauryn Hill. Smith doesn’t find herself even close to on-par with these two, strong-minded female MCs/singers. However, it’s refreshing to hear and know that there is someone following their footsteps in an attempt to push the boundaries of hip-hop with sweat and worn soles out of the dry vat of stagnate radio-friendly sounscape its currently sitting in.
Unfortunately, the problems that Fox Trot Mannerisms fall into are much the same issues that plague artist that have attempted to do this. Much like later Massive Attack, Tricky, and even Badu’s most recent outing, it seems to bypass progressive innovation over time and fall into that dreaded, Starbucks-friendly sound of “after-hours” or even worse, “electro-lounge”. The differences between these saccharine, “please step into the massage lounge as your green, herbal tea warms” outputs and the second half of Fox Trot Mannerisms is really difficult to discern. Starting with “Shapbabs” and continuing on through the CD-only album closer, “Cosy”, things get increasingly unfocused. It makes you wonder if the entire studio crew fell asleep in beanbag chairs with the record button still on after rolling that second spliff.
Repetitive and unimaginatively lethargic, these tracks set a foundation with a beat, sprinkle in a couple samples and then let the track play out. That’s it. Nothing else happens to the tracks. We don’t even get vocals on a handful of them. Its kind of like a musical accompaniment to those screen savers from the late ’90s that played out like you were traveling through space — monochromatic, balanced, continual, and never-ending. Even for that brand of downtempo, electro-lounge meets Corea-approved jazz-lite, this shit doesn’t really stick. No, Thievery Corporation isn’t making a comeback, it’s just the most recent output from Pursuit Grooves.
The most frustrating thing about Fox Trot Mannerisms, though, is the first two tracks, which give off the impression that the album might actually be the beginning of something noteworthy. “Pressure” is straight out of a 9th Wonder-meets-Badu playbook. Smith does her best soulful, smoky impression of Erykah to effectual results. “Start Something” is a strange lo-fi, off-kilter take at post-rap that is inventively psychedelic and dark. These tracks show promise, but the rest of the record never builds on their strengths. Instead, it stumbles down a long, soft-pillowed path that conjures up images of sterile, crème-colored rooms and a cabinet full of painkillers.
Wake me when it’s over.