The Best Producers of 2011

Drake is a fine rapper. On this year’s Take Care, a record that will at once confirm Drake’s status as the Biggest Name in Hip-Hop (2011) and prove he just might deserve the title, he shows off some serious gains made in his style since So Far Gone (2009) and Thank Me Later (2010). Check his warp drive flow on “HYFR” or his careful, deliberate sketches on “Marvin’s Room” for evidence. But as a wordsmith, the chameleonic Torontonian isn’t in the same fighting class as his heavyweight competition — Kanye West, cohort Lil Wayne, their friend and godfather, Jay-Z. Not even close. So, why is Take Care deserving of serious, from-the-rafters acclaim as a potential game changer?

For the answer, give Take Care’s gold-encrusted liner notes a read. Noah “40” Shebib holds production credits for 14 out of the 18 tracks on the proper album. He shares many of these credits with some major talent: minimalist wunderkind Jamie xx, the Weeknd and Illangelo (we’ll get to them shortly), and — what do you know? — Drake. Shebib has collaborators, but the sound of Take Care — the sound of Drake, the sound of depressive, heart-on-sleeve R&B/hip-hop hybridity, the zeitgeist sound — belongs largely to him. Shebib is Drake’s writing partner, his confidante, and in many ways, his muse.

The success of the Drake/Shebib sound in permeating mainstream hip-hop falls somewhere between completely shocking and a-million-to-one, no way, totally scandalizing. Shebib focuses on atmosphere, on ambience and feeling, more than layering hook over hook over hook. Comparing his work to that of, say, 2011’s other breakout producer, Lex Luger, is like comparing apples to chicken-fried steak. Luger’s style, all tinny snare hits and insidiously huge synths, bludgeons its listener into submission with Rain Man-level repetition, all in the service of ensuring its earworms become less embedded in one’s brain than permanently fused to one’s cranial tissue. Shebib, conversely, lets his beats breathe. The bass on his tracks can still wreak havoc on a car stereo system, but the way Shebib surrounds the lower register with touches of clean piano, synths that sigh and heave, and empty space — when “Marvin’s Room” pops up on Clear Channel radio between the usual hyper-compressed, Eurotrash dreck, you’ll think you stepped into a parallel universe.

Equally strange, the nexus of this universe isn’t in New York or New Orleans or Atlanta — it’s in Toronto, not a city with a popular history of hip-hop breakthroughs. Shebib, in interviews, is quick to point to his Toronto-based influences and mentors, proof the city had its own thriving scene long before the rest of the world began paying attention. His career began by working with Toronto production don Noah “Gadget” Campbell, known outside of the city for his work with Divine Brown, K-OS, and, sure, Nelly Furtado. Boi-1da and T-Minus, who also worked on Take Care, helped Shebib into the fold. But it’s Shebib and Drake who have become the face of the new Toronto sound, all earnest smiles and friendly embraces.

If Shebib and Drake, the OVO crew (or October’s Very Own, named for Drake’s birth month), are the sad sack but ultimately fun-loving yin to this Toronto scene, there must be a yang. Enter the XO crew. The Weeknd, alias of the angelically-voiced and demonically-minded Abel Tesfaye, rose this year from complete obscurity to massive acclaim at the pace of a vinegar-and-baking-soda chain reaction with the release of his first mixtape, House of Balloons, and its follow-up, Thursday. His production team, Doc McKinney and Illangelo (with early help from Zodiac), share some creative DNA with Shebib. They, too, favor negative space, glacially frigid atmospherics, and sinister, smudged bass kicks. Drake gave an early shout out to the Weeknd on his Twitter feed, and he turns in an exceptional verse on Thursday’s “The Zone”, linking the superstar with the rising upstarts in the popular imagination. (The Weeknd repaid the favor by stealing the show on Take Care’s “Crew Love”, co-produced by Illangelo.)

Where Drake’s post-coital moping usually manages to end up somehow endearing (or at least sympathetic), the Weeknd investigates the other side of the party, the brutal next-morning hangovers and the piecemeal memories of bad decisions and serious mistakes. You won’t find much sentiment in the songs on House of Balloons or Thursday, and the experience of entering their worlds can leave you feeling like you need a long, cold shower. But the pull toward the Weeknd’s sonic environments is hard to resist, just like the indulgence in pills and drink that color Tesfaye’s songs.

The Weeknd found an early audience with the hipster crowd, due to positive coverage on Pitchfork and other indie blogs. The ensuing debate over so-called PBR&B — whether an R&B act loses some modicum of credibility if its audience might be predominantly white — has mercifully subsided; The Weeknd has the songs to back up the hype, and the Internet has moved on to troll for other nitpicking, uninteresting discussions. The appeal to the indie-minded crowd, however, makes more sense when you look at the XO crew’s production choices. Samples from dream-pop heroes Beach House and post-punk progenitors Siouxsie & the Banshees provide places of reference for such a crowd to enter into the Weeknd’s world.

But this isn’t mere posturing for a crossover appeal: Doc McKinney, Illangelo, and Zodiac brilliantly reinterpret this material, co-opting it to the point that the samples sound completely natural in their element, barely calling attention to themselves. “Loft Music”, for example, lifts the vocals of Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and pitch-shifts them into a familiar hip-hop “oh-oh” hook, while using her band’s guitar to provide an ironically graceful backdrop for Tesfaye’s disturbing images of drugged-up sex. The track’s peak comes when the music slows and seems to bend, as if the sample itself were drunk, and Tesfaye coos and moans in his falsetto to entrancing effect. That his production team would reserve over three minutes for this kind of ambient coda proves their belief in breaking the rules of the genre — as well as in their own ability to keep your attention.

Yes, Drake and Tesfaye create immersive, indelible worlds in their lyrics. Their focus on the uglier returns of the sex-crazed, liquor-soaked lifestyle promoted in so much mainstream hip-hop has allowed them to sound fresh and engaging in an increasingly dry, idea-starved genre. And this is how the game works: the frontman gets the attention, perhaps rightfully so. Still, Shebib, McKinney, and Illangelo provide a welcome reminder that a talented rapper or a gifted singer isn’t all it takes to create memorable, moving hip-hop or R&B. Take Care, House of Balloons, and Thursday are rare beasts, headphones albums in a genre full of disposable Billboard hits and interchangeable, flat hooks. OVOXO make songs you don’t need to feel guilty about hyping. Their songs are sonic landscapes, chilly and distant, and all the more beguiling for their remoteness.