Montreal-based producer Kaytranada attempts a lot of things on his debut. When he hits the mark, it's great. If only he hit the mark just a bit more often.
Montreal producer-DJ-electronic musician Kaytranada’s debut album is a collage that runs from sparsely arranged hip-hop to smooth R&B to old school instrumental techno. Even though he doesn’t do every genre he attempts equally skillfully, there’s a pop music core to most of these songs that keeps 99.9% listenable throughout.
The best Kaytranada has to offer comes early on 99.9%, with two consecutive but very different tracks. “Bus Ride” is a chilled-out two-minute instrumental that floats on a glistening bed of strings and synths and tinkling piano. It’s pleasant and catchy, but it also features the live drumming of Karriem Riggins. Those drums are pushed right up front in the mix, but Riggins plays it mostly straight for the majority of the song. He keeps a simple, steady hi-hat and snare pattern going, only occasionally shifting a beat or giving a cymbal flourish. But he opens up in the final 30 seconds, adding a variety of complicated fills while keeping the original beat going. This pushes right into “Got It Good”, an R&B delight featuring Craig David on vocals. Kaytranada seeds the song with unusual background sounds: a bass line with a frequency so low it seems to wobble coming out of the speakers and a pitch-shifted wordless backing vocal that sounds like it is vibrating of its own accord. That makes the song sonically interesting, but it’s David’s smooth vocal performance that sells it. He makes what’s already a strong melody better, and it’s a credit to Kaytranada’s production skills that he pulled in such a perfectly suited singer for the song.
Nothing else hits those high points, but a few tracks come close. “Glowed Up” is a song that initially annoys, employing similar wobbly bass and a squeaky synth line to aggravating effect. They back a vocal performance from Anderson .Paak that is mostly rapped but features a singsong-y chorus. But with multiple listens, that squeaky synth hook and the chorus, “Lately I’ve been glowed up”, burrow into your brain and stay there. More interesting, the track essentially has a second movement. At the three-minute mark, the whole song shifts gears into a sexy slow jam, leaving the earworms behind for something more low key. “You’re the One” aims for the same kind of smooth R&B as “Got it Good”, but does it in a more traditional style. Syd’s breathy vocals aren’t as impactful as Craig David’s, but they fit the song. Musically, the fat synth bassline and the handclap-snap percussion (plus the occasional chirping “Woo!”) keep the song in the pocket and probably make it a little more palatable to a mainstream listening audience. “One Too Many”, on the other hand, retains some sonic weirdness while Phonte’s Pharrell-style falsetto-dominated vocals once again hit a sweet spot. The lyrics about going out, dancing, and having one too many drinks are nicely undercut in the second verse, where Phonte claims, “All I really want / Is just a night at home / With her by candlelight / (Quiet time / Quiet time) But until I find that girl / I wanna hit the floor and we gon’ jam tonight”.
“Drive Me Crazy” relies almost entirely on rapper Vic Mensa’s delivery, and it’s a good thing that he brings it, because the would-be hook isn’t very strong. “Despite the Weather” is a two-minute instrumental summer jam that feels overly familiar. And it feels overly familiar because it essentially takes the drumbeat and bassline of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s 1991 hit “Summertime” (which itself took the bassline from Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness”) and doesn’t do much to recontextualize it. “Breakdance Lesson N.1” is appropriately named, because it closely resembles an early ‘80s instrumental hip-hop track. The beat and bassline stay constant while the song trades off between disco-era guitar strumming and high-pitched staccato synth stabs. But at four and a half minutes, it wears out its welcome for anyone who isn’t listening from the dance floor.
The balance of 99.9% is filled out with mostly decent pop and R&B-flavored tracks, almost all with guest stars, that bring to mind Basement Jaxx’s pop-house music style. Except without the occasional fascinating genre-bending experiments. The most experimental track Kaytranada has is probably album opener “Track Uno”. This otherwise unimpressive disco-flavored electronic instrumental has a peculiar audio feature that I found annoying while listening in the car and on home speakers, but provoked an actual, negative physical reaction in me while listening on headphones. Kaytranada gives the song a pulsing quality where the volume of certain instruments quickly fades in and out, as if it was coming from a strangely malfunctioning speaker. I’m not prone to motion sickness, but having that pulse transmitted directly into my ears made me physically uncomfortable in a very similar fashion. This affected me so much that I initially thought this pulsing technique carried over into much of the rest of the album, when really it only shows up, and then only partially, on one other track (“Lite Spots”).
Negative physical reaction aside, there’s a lot to like on 99.9%. At 15 tracks, Kaytranada could’ve easily cut out about three of the lesser songs here and had a better album. But one figures that for a producer, after several years of making a name for yourself remixing individual tracks, that really putting your name on a full album of your own material is a big deal and you want to get as much out there as you can. The great stuff here is really worthwhile though, and it’s almost enough to give the album a full recommendation; almost, but not quite.