It would be disingenuous to call what Dels does on his debut album GOB unique. There are plenty of artists who have come up with a hip-hop formula that features smart rhymes and production styles that owe at least as much to Warp Records-style IDM as they do to so-called “classic” hip-hop. Plenty of those artists even share a record label with Dels, as Big Dada seems to have made seeking out this style a habit. As such, it’s not immediately clear what it is that elevates Dels’s take on this formula to a level beyond so many of his predecessors.
Maybe it’s a sense of adventure. There’s very little here that falls under the typical verse-hook-verse-repeat formula, and it’s difficult to tell whether Dels’s lyrics are leading the production into the abyss or vice versa. Granted, he spends a lot of time talking about himself and how different he is, but there are enough nods to other topics to keep this from being an exercise in ego. Of particular note is the devastating “Violina”, a brutal portrait of the down-and-out as told from the first person. Abrasive production shoves a discordant melody in our ears while alcoholism and joblessness makes its way into the mix, with not a bit of hope to be found amidst the abrasive texture. “Droogs” treads similar ground, this time focusing on the mother and daughter in a dysfunctional home while production that sounds like tape-manipulated easy-listening hip-pop charts a queasy backdrop. It’s songs like these in which his fearlessness comes through; he doesn’t soften his words or his beats with easy hooks. He’s happy to let them linger in listeners’ ears in a way that leaves those listeners unsure as to what actually happened.
Maybe it’s the company he keeps. Joe Goddard of Hot Chip shows up for not one but two tracks, offering vocals that could have been hooks on other albums, but here just stand out as extra shades for the deep colors in Dels’s creations. “Trumpalump” is particularly effective, as Goddard arrives at almost the exact same time as some surprisingly atmospheric steel drum work, and the track takes a decidedly new feel even as the beat remains constant. Elan Tamara of the Bakery shows up for “DLR”, offering a perfectly simple, perfectly conflicted hook that accentuates the insular navelgazing of the track it adorns. While both artists’ presence strengthens GOB‘s impact, however, this is too much Dels’s vision to credit them with the album’s sound.
In essence, that’s entirely behind what works here — each of these tracks has its own very specific identity, so much so that it would be impossible to confuse any one of the 11 for any other. While Dels may well spend plenty of time talking about himself, his methods change things up enough to keep his egocentrism interesting. Opener “Hydronenburg” walks the line of capturing the appeal to being more than a little tipsy without necessarily glorifying substance abuse, all while being just bouncy and abrasive enough to keep the listener from thinking too hard. “Moonshining” is delightfully creepy, all abstract metaphor and sounds turned into instruments that don’t quite tune with one another, and the all-too-short “Melting Patterns” takes the sparest of loping beats and somehow weaves an “in the club” narrative into it.
There’s a sort of cognitive dissonance to these songs. The subject matter doesn’t quite match the production in many cases, and yet putting them all with one another flips such dissonance into making sense. This is Dels’ worldview, take it or leave it. If nothing else, it’s enough to make you think about the music you’re listening to, rather than just let it play until something else comes on. Dels has given us the sort of debut that makes you want to pay attention. It’s flawed, it’s often ugly, and it’s never quite transcendent, but it works. GOB is the sort of debut that makes you anxious for album two; greatness is in here, it just never quite manages to stick around for long. If he can build on this, Dels could be extraordinary.