Lewisham based “freepop” artist Kwes, releases his sophomore album ilp after paying his dues as a sort after remixer (Damon Albarn, Amon Tobin, Zero 7, Hot Chip) and producer (The XX, Speech Debelle, Micachu), for seminal UK institution Warp Records, the label that released his EP Meantime last year.
Tender, innocent and heartfelt are all decent words you could use to describe Kwes’ unique brand of experimental, warm, R&B tinged noise-pop. However, don’t let those ‘soft’ words lull you into thinking this record is twee, cheesy or overtly sentimental as that is simply not the case. It sounds like a pop artist on Warp should sound. Slightly deranged, accessible but not at the same time, innovative yet at points frustrating. This all leads me to believe that Kwes’ ilp is to pop what Jamie Lidell’s Jim was to soul — Warp’s own auteuristic take on popular genres, as it were. Maybe this is a bit harsh on both Kwes and Jamie Lidell, the intimation that it is Warp pulling the strings behind certain releases in order to satisfy the indie-behemoth’s ever changing whims and desires, it, just to me, feels a bit that way as it has with certain other releases of theirs.
Anyway, sentimentality is definitely a theme here as the album professes to, and succeeds in paying homage to the major lyrical tropes present in the best that pop has to offer. That being, love and more specifically, a simple love for everyday things and people; be that the love you have for your grandparents, or the nativity felt as a youngster feeling love for the first time,all way through cupid’s gamut and beyond. The album is dense and rich in equal parts, certainly befitting of the content contained within. It feels free and free from structure, something that truly flies in the face of pop music’s history — but, hey, like I say this is Warp that are putting this record out — which makes it all the more inviting and exploratory.
Over the course of the albums 10 tracks — which actually feels like a lot more due to the breadth of ideas on offer here — all bases are covered. You get ’80s sounding arpeggiated riffs, James Blake-esq affected vocal tracks, dark creeping bass drones, lush, ambient pad work, memorable melodic figures, innovative audio effects, glitched out passages and beatless beauty all sown and patched together, shrouded in an opulent, yet rough lo-fi aesthetic — that at points in the album sounds very akin to some of the LA Beat Scenes work — which truly marks the talented singer/songwriter and producer out as one not to watch out for in the future, but to watch out for now.
With tracks often segueing seamlessly into one another, the album is much more than just an artistic statement of intent, it is a manifesto of what pop music can and should be in the new-world-music-order, with the later sections in particular seeming very conceptual and highly thought through, which makes the journey, from the bright(ish) beginning through to the heartbreak malaise at the end all the more satisfying.
The album kicks off with the expansive “purplehands”, a track that builds from a psychedelic swirl of atmospherics, reversed samples and meditative tones into an introspective, almost wonky hip hop attempt at esoteric crooning R&B. The vocals, which start off almost inaudibly as they are so heavily effected, drift in and around the pitch-shifting backdrops and smeared piano lines lending the track a longingly melancholic edge that for some reason reminds me of Morrissey — just way less depressing.
The braindance neo-pop-soul of “36” is up next, utilising a syncopated, almost funky bassline alongside a warm, set back vocal performance and cheap Kuedo/The Host style drum machine rhythm (also present on “cablecar” that compliments the stirring chorus, replete with high pitched twinkling melodies and earnest happy-go-lucky polaroid harmonies.
“Rollerblades” kicks off like a Flying Lotus tune — shuffly, sampled hip-hop drums accompanied with a walking melody — and quickly reveals itself to be a quirky, whimsical and uplifting number recalling the ups and down of teenage love. The instrumentation echoes the lyrical sentimental present at any given point in the tune, which is a really nice piece of songwriting, marrying and echoing the tone and the sound of the instrumental with the vocal performance extremely well.
One of the stand out tracks for me on this album is the epic centrepiece of the project, the eight-minute long “cablecar”– a track that although starting off like many of the others, with a loping subdued beat accompanied by drunken, sun-warped synths and swathes of found sound — twist and turns on a penny. This highlights Kwes’s strong compositional talent by being able to turn an almost steampunk trip-hop tune into a heavily effected shoegaze/prog-rock masterwork without ever thinking any of the transitions were forced or un-needed. Considering it fades to almost silence for nearly ten seconds before turning into a churning cauldron of swampy vocals and deep, disturbing bass accompanied by smacked up, heroin infused melodic figures, it’s no mean feat.
“Flowers” starts life as a bundle of tape compressed, nostalgia before stripping everything back to the bare minimum — subdued bass and drums and aching vocals – allowing the pining lyrical performance to come to the fore to great effect. It has a power ballad quality to it without ever raising it pulse above barely breathing which is a marvelous deed to have achieved.
“Hives” is the stand-out tune, beginning as a piece of industrial, dark ambient music before slowly revealing its Dilla-esq funk qualities before descending into moving, morose instrumental hip-hop territory, juggling multiple sampled melodies with MGM string scorings and Boards of Canada style pastoral harmonies. It’s a truly exhilarating take on hip-hop, once more proving why 2013 has been a fine vintage for one of electronic music’s oldest genres.
“Broke” is sure to receive lazy comparisons (here is one now) to neo-soul prodigy James Blake. The laconic almost-whispered, downcast delivery that dissolves away into washed out reverberated noise is partnered with disjointed muffled kicks, a lazy stop start head-nod bassline and misty string parts that bolster up the strange otherworld that Kwes has created. The track melts into following number “chagall” like an ice cube in cold warm water, imperceptively and without haste, and it isn’t until you have noticed that over a minute of eddying, abstract, psychedelic ambience has played, by looking at your music player, that the track has changed.
For me the album ends with the birdsong and music box utterances of “parakeet”, a short track that continues and takes to its logical conclusion, the later part of the albums obsession with shoegaze backdrops, industrial dissonance juxtaposed with Kwes’ earnest, honest proclamations of “doing the best he could do”. It’s a great way to finish an album.
The album actually finishes with a rework of “B_shf_I”, a tune that featured on Meantime, which for people who didn’t buy that first EP is a nice inclusion despite the fact it seems very out of place on this collection. This is an experimental concept album that doesn’t really need a single like this residing on it. I sort of understand why it is on here as it serves as a good introduction to Kwes’ sound, but if people want to see where he came from and what his musical journey has been like, it would not have been hard for them to find out about that online somewhere.
All things said, ilp is thoroughly enjoyable listen from start to end. It takes in all manner of influences both cogent and disparate and doesn’t so much as mash them together. Rather, it encourages and coaxes them to get along and work in harmony with each other, which is something I have rarely heard pulled off so well. When people describe the music as “pop” it may put some off, but don’t let that tag lull you into thinking that the LP is an exercise in fist-pumping adolescent sugar rush energy that proclaims hedonism and child exploitation as the way forward, as we have all seen recently (cough cough Miley Cyrus). Instead, it’s an extremely mature record that tackles the world’s biggest most important theme, love, with confidence and assurance.