This is hip-hop in 2015. This is R&B in 2015. This is music in 2015. It isn’t static, it isn’t formally restricted, it’s hell-bent on blurring lines.
Flint, Michigan-based artist Tunde Olaniran might seem like an eccentric, an innovator; someone blazing his own trail. He crosses genres, he choreographs dances for his videos, he makes his own clothes, he has an unconventional look. His music takes unexpected turns, in style and, perhaps more often, in tone. And he considers himself a “transgressor”, as he tells us on the first track and album title. He’s not afraid, he declares loudly and proudly, of doing his own thing.
Yet his nonconformist identity and his musical dexterity -- the main way he expresses nonconformity on his debut album Transgressor -- are incredibly representative of the moment we’re in right now, in 2015. This is hip-hop in 2015. This is R&B in 2015. This is music in 2015. It isn’t static, it isn’t formally restricted, it’s hell-bent on blurring lines. Olaniran is a singer, he’s a rapper, he’s an artist with diverse tastes who is just as likely to emulate or collaborate with so-called alternative or indie-rock musicians as he is to reference or identify with rap music of the present or past.
He’s also a stereotypical millennial; on the move -- he admits writing lyrics in an instinctive, in-the-moment way, in no way studied or over-considered. He’s less about planning than feeling. His singing goes into a brash falsetto at a whim, shifts into rather straightforward rapping and then screws that up into something more cartoonish, more hyper. For a few songs he’ll dedicate his effort to bolstering and inspiring our nation’s disaffected youth -- the bullied, the left-out, the misunderstood -- and then the next song will be an enigma or a joke. I’ve listened to the album about 15 or 20 times so far, and I haven’t yet figured out some of the moments. Why he repeatedly yells out Malia Obama’s name in a growl at the end of one song, for example.
That theme of inspiring the overlooked or oppressed among us shouldn’t be understated. It’s the point of the title track “Transgressor” -- well, that and establishing his roots in Nigeria and the USA, and more importantly establishing his way of cutting-up and energizing both R&B and hip-hop. There’s a persistent energy throughout Transgressor that can be almost overbearing. On tracks like “KYBM”, you need to get in step with him or you’ll get run over.
As a rapper, he’s reminiscent sometimes of the tossed-off yet brilliant rhymes of Father and other modern-day explorers living in the social-media era. As a singer he’s all over the map -- sometimes singing to the rafters like he’s trying to impress us with his skills (an American Idol contestant?), other times getting in a futuristic mood akin to some more “alternative”-leaning R&B artists of the day; or emulating the skipping and pounding rhythms of the music, or fitting with the Frank Ocean/808s and Heartbreak-era Kanye West style of delivering hip-hop swagger within R&B singing.
Importantly, he demolishes the line between singing and rapping, as others have done before him in recent times. The music, too, is never straight hip-hop yet filled with elements that would be happy to live within hip-hop music in 2015. A lot of (maybe-)trombone hooks, subterranean bass tones, double-time drum breaks. At the same time, there are spots that remind me of movie soundtracks, of random pop songs from across the decades.
Each time it’s when I get to the tenth track, “Diamonds” (featuring iRAWniQ and Passalacqua), that I am reminded of the humor and diversity of theme on the album. The song embodies swagger while goofing on it - “nothing in my pocket but a five-dollar bill”, Olaniran declares. It’s a song that somehow makes you think back through what you’ve heard so far and rethink it, realize the world you thought you were living in is even broader and more involved than you thought. And is laughing and having fun as a choice, instead of crying and breaking down.
At the end of that song, Olaniran’s voice gets higher and whinier than before, in a state of anxiety that says joking about having no money means actually having no money, and being stressed about it. Behind the loopiest and goofiest moments on Transgressor lie pain or at least intense dedication to an idea, be it improvement of life’s circumstances or casting aside the domineering stance of parental and societal assumptions about what is normal and what is weird.