Review: Kaytranada, 99.9%

Kaytranada dabbles in imperfect versions of an oft-perfect medium
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Kaytranada dabbles in imperfect versions of an oft-perfect medium
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No matter how hard producers may try, there’s something that will always feel completely inhuman about electronic music. It’s in the details, which is to say that they’re all perfect. The computer-aided genre is practically a glass-half-full demonstration of science versus human art. What happens when you create art using the meticulously fine-tuned exactness of science? Electronic music, apparently.

Observations like this wouldn't normally hold very much weight, but certain pockets of the population—namely, mid-to-late millennials with a stressful full-time job and a shitload of bills to pay—have reached a peculiar mental hard-stop in terms of creative austerity. Drawing emotional meaning out of the uber-intricate fractures in manmade music has suddenly taken a backseat to computer noises that capture the most perfect representation of time signature and melody. Hearing Ryan Adams’ voice crack during his incendiary cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” isn’t nearly as compelling as an 808 recreating an untarnished, flawless version of the exact same thing. Effectively, the concept of creating something real has been usurped by the concept of creating something perfect.

Our natural predisposition inclines us to strive for perfection in everything we do, so to the naked eye, this may not seem like such a bad thing. But to adopt this philosophy is to reject automatically the notion of art being perfect at its onset. What was once a completely subjective medium now exists adjacent to an objective definition of success.

Dismal observations of this caliber make it easy to acknowledge the brilliance behind producers who not only have made the same observations, but who also have resolved to buck the trend on purpose. This, in a nutshell, is what makes Haitian-born, Montreal-based producer Kaytranada such an interesting case study: He manipulates electronic music to a place where it seems handmade. His tracks are deliberately imperfect; bass lines drop 1/32 of a beat too early, and samples are warped to sound sharp or flat, all in the name of good fun. None of this is an accident, which is what makes it so endearing. Kaytranada dabbles in imperfect versions of an oft-perfect medium, and his affinity for the impure has become a most precious form of currency.

I’m not saying Kaytranada’s penchant for bending the rules is the only claim he can stake within the fabric of the genre. It’s not. What I am saying is that the whole idea feels heroic, because at its heart, his catalog is still definitively considered dance music. Innovation is good, but innovation within familiarity is better and way easier to digest. Even his earliest remixes and home-spun tracks fall squarely into the dance music category, so positing that his whole portfolio is some formulaic mind-fuck would be incorrect.

Still, it’s hard to overlook how successful this approach has played out so far. Kaytranada, born Louis Kevin Celestin, has made a career out of the sample-based, no-frills dance music that fits perfectly on Disclosure’s “WILD LIFE” bill, but it’s his commitment to the unorthodox intricacies that makes his music so immediately recognizable.

On debut LP 99.9%, we witness the Celestin formula in its most fully developed state. Spanning 15 tracks and clocking in at just under an hour, 99.9% exposes Kaytranada’s versatility as a producer. This caught me off guard, given how narrow Celestin’s scope had appeared to this point. But make no mistake: 99.9% could play from start to finish behind a house party, and no one would accuse the setlist of being duplicative or boring.

That’s not to say that the four-on-the-floor bangers aren’t present en masse. “Break Dance Lesson N.1” is a dance floor CTA, pitting Chic-era guitar riffs against synth glimmers and an unrelenting bass line. “You’re the One” balances “Breakdance” with due subtlety, featuring thrilling guest vocals by Syd and an infectious UK garage-inspired backbeat. And while we’re on the subject of guest spots, Toronto-based synth-pop virtuoso River Tiber makes the most of his inclusion, both on slow-banger “Bus Ride” and on the more ethereal “Vivid Dreams”. On the latter, Kaytranda shoves the Miguel-esque tone in River Tiber’s voice to the forefront, maximizing the mids and sinking the lows to their farthest depths. Bass lines seem more like visceral rumbles, and a steady-pulse layering of the vocal track evoke all-stops-out volume a la Burial and Mount Kimbie.

Pre-release singles “Drive Me Crazy”, “Glowed Up”, and “Leave Me Alone”, established two things pretty early on: 1) The Kaytranada LP was going to bang, and 2) The Kaytranada LP was probably going to confuse a lot of people. That is to say: Dropping these three tracks was a smart move because it left critics bemused as to Celestin’s strategy. But as ancillary tracks on 99.9% the pre-releases prove much more functional, building upon the bigger theme of the LP.

The bigger theme, of course, is that Kaytra is much more than just some run-of-the-mill house producer. Dude’s got soul, and he knows how to use it in a way that doesn’t seem overbearing. No other track on the album illustrates this know-how like “Got It Good”. Featuring electrifying vocals by British soul veteran Craig David, “Got It Good” is the kind of almost-dance track that operates better off the dance floor than it does on it. David’s vocals are still as smooth and voluminous as they were in 2001, and even though “Fill Me In”, and “7 Days”, saw the end of their glory days years ago, David’s talent has waned a bit since.

I could go on about the effortless likability of 99.9%, but the most critical takeaway is how nuanced every single track is on behalf of Kaytranada’s unparalleled attention to and manipulation of detail. Without the microscopic blips and ever-so-slight alterations, this LP would sound like a bland follow-up to Caracal. But it doesn’t sound like that for the same exact reason why Kaytra has established such an iconic DNA to this point: He capitalizes on what other artists consider deformities, and he does it with a finesse that seems completely natural. As the obnoxious pomp and circumstance of big-blast EDM subsides, there’s never been a better time to be an innovative talent with an ear for exciting house music. Kaytranada is that talent. B PLUS