Hip-hop producer Hudson Mohawke has blown up in the years since his debut album Butter, to the point that even those indirectly familiar with his work could glean the artist’s signature sounds from his long-awaited follow-up, Lantern. To that end, Mohawke has moved away from the busy, hyperactive approach that defined his early work for a more controlled, centralized sound. In contrast to the stuttering beat music of Butter, Lantern offers a much more cohesive album statement but also a far less challenging one, plainly evoking many of the conventions Mohawke skillfully chopped into with his first foray into the album format.
In the six long years since Butter, his transition to the Lantern sound has been evident, particularly with dayglo trap hit “Chimes” and subsequent EP, introducing the blustering horns and shimmering synthesizers that have become his calling card. Old fans will mourn the loss of Butter’s erratic energy and compositional complexity, but even with Mohawke’s newly heightened sense of hooky commerciality, he’s managed a sentimental type of passion in his newer work, more evocative and rapturous than ever before.
No where is this more evident than Lantern’s first proper song, “Very First Breath”, where tinkling bells, thin snare hits and guest vocalist Irfane’s nasally soul orbit around a buzzing synth melody, naturally introducing the record’s prevailing sense of blissful weightlessness. Lead single “Scud Books” provides the most definitive version of Mohawke’s updated electropop-meets-hip-hop formula, taking flight with evolving percussive rhythms locked in around huge celebratory synths and majestic horns, making it Lantern’s centerpiece both literally and in a grander thematic sense.
Both “Very First Breath” and “Scud Books”, while still uniquely imaginative among Mohawke’s more mainstream peers, boast boisterous beats, chintzy synths and quietly anthemic vocals somewhere near the neon, good time party anthems of Kanye West’s pop-centric Graduation, a semi-dated reference point for an artist that has already explored the very outer limits of pop-rap production. Strangely, Mohawke has, in the interim, contributed to the vast West empire himself, notably on the minimalist Yeezus, the harsh, industrial opposite to Graduation’s swelling, feel good immediacy, but while Mohawke’s nuanced versatility isn’t exactly exercised to the fullest with the cheesy, oversaturated splendor of Lantern, there are some unexpected disruptive notes that keep a level of dynamism to the music.
Listen, for instance, to the title track intro’s static charge, or Antony Hegarty’s chillingly offbeat performance on “Indian Steps”, a song which ends in bursts of turbulent feedback that, in a truly Yeezus-inspired move, teasingly swim around a few harmonic notes before cutting into the buggy and dark “Lil Djembe”. Miguel is given his own stormy backdrop in which to lace his soulful voice on “Deepspace”, both the boldest and least successful union on the album. Add in the eerily glitchy “Shadows”, the somber orchestral swells of “Kettles”, the metallic percussion sounds on the otherwise plucky “Portrait of Luci” and Jhene Aiko’s mournful performance on “Resistance” and it’s clear that Lantern isn’t just the purely optimistic party record its more prominent cuts so convincingly suggest.
Cleaned up, brightened and simplified, the album is a fine showcase for Mohawke’s preppy sensibilities while remaining a singular, auteuristic remedy to today’s faceless (and toothless) EDM superstars. Mohawke pulls attention from blockbuster party fodder with pointed synth stabs, massive marching band percussion and actual, established songcraft — no unbalanced drops or arbitrary breaks (save for the electrifying “System”) — just pure, simple compositional skill driving from highway to highway on infectious, hyper-melodic bliss.