D.R.A.M., Big Baby D.R.A.M.
D.R.A.M. is a 28-year-old singer-rapper with undeniable star power, potentially as much as Fetty Wap, and for the same reasons. He’s a big bundle of positivity, all hugs and cuddles and smiles and awkward romanticism. He belts, though his style is more fluid and soul-informed than Fetty’s bellowing. He’s got a bit of a mean streak, taking (perhaps sexual) delight in using the Internet his hookup’s boyfriend pays for on “WiFi”. He’s already got two hits under his belt: the nerdy, breezy “Broccoli” and the “Hotline Bling” template “Cha Cha”. But his debut album Big Baby D.R.A.M. makes it clear he’s interested in a lot more than just writing breezy radio tunes.
The only problem is that’s unequivocally what he’s best at. “Broccoli” is wonderful, even if a bored-sounding yet still somehow adorable Lil Yachty steals the show. “Cash Machine” is even more lovable built around the sort of exuberant soul beat that lets the world know you’re here and ready to blow money. “Cute” is, well, cute — he sings “I choose you like a Pokemon,” for fuck’s sake — but its hook is so simple as to be both comical and maddenly catchy. These are easily the best songs here, along with the funny, maudlin Erykah Badu collaboration “WiFi”.
But most of the album is devoted to ambient soul fluff like “Sweet Va Breeze” and “Change My #” and questionable stylistic experiments like “Monticello Ave.”, a stab at the rappity-rap storytelling of fellow street-sign fetishist J. Cole, or the deep house “Outta Sight”. He sings in the faux-drunken warble of Chance or iLoveMakonnen a lot of the time, but he’s also got a great soul voice, which kind of defeats the point of faux-drunken warbling. The one thing that’s consistent is a preoccupation with love in the digital age; a lot of the album is about phones.
D.R.A.M. cites Rick Rubin as his mentor. Though the sultan of ‘90s sprawl has no production credits here, it’s likely Rubin encouraged him to get as many of his half-ideas on wax to fill as much CD space as possible, as tends to be his strategy as a producer. A more pop-oriented producer might not give D.R.A.M. the freedom he seems to have afforded here, but hiring one wouldn’t be a terrible idea. As what D.R.A.M. does best is also what he could make the most money on, perhaps the best strategy on all fronts would be for him to sell his soul. B MINUS
Elysia Crampton, Demon City
Elysia Crampton’s gnarled, fiery genius is best displayed on The Light They Gave Me To See You, her cult classic as E+E that’s nearly impossible to find. Until it gets a much-needed reissue, here’s Demon City, a collection of collaborations and a step up from 2014’s impenetrably boho American Drift. Crampton’s described this as an “epic poem,” but words are sparse here; this is better thought of as futurist electronic music, medieval fanfares gelling with contemporary Top 40 and interstellar mythology. Crampton, who reads prose and poetry during her sets, recently pulled out some batshit sci-fi connecting the brutally murdered Aymara leader/indigenous-resistance hero Bartolina Sisa with a post-gender future ruled by mutant spiders. Good luck finding that narrative in the music, but this is as good a soundtrack to the queer Matrix as any.
Demon City is dense, blocky post-club collage music, tighter and less sprawling than that on American Drift. It seems principally inspired by Andean huayno music (her grandmother is from Bolivia) and the sort of pop made by people like StarGate around 2010 (rally music for many queer folks – including this writer, who came out while “Bad Romance” bumped worldwide). Perhaps there’s a chiptune influence too. It’s all warped through copious noise and dissonance, enough that this stuff will scare a lot of listeners away. But I suspect, anyone who’s followed electronic music in the last couple years will be ready to tackle it; it’s every bit in the same vein as artists like Rabit, Chino Amobi, Lexxi (all collaborators here), Arca, Lotic, and serpentwithfeet.
Synths hit with portentous grandeur (“Demon City”). Synth horns (and airhorns!) trumpet with abandon (“Esposas 2013”, “Children of Hell”). Fake percussion clatters (“Dummy Track”). The composition feels rough and rugged. The melodies, even when they’re played through the same absurd fake sax that gave Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me” its garish grandiosity, play less like pop than those recordings of the “oldest songs ever written” you might have heard in history class or in a deep Wikipedia hole. It’s often beautiful, but it’s confusing, and the layers of concept aren’t much help. Political electronic music can often be useless without context. Here, the protest is more personal. It’s Crampton channeling her own history into 25 bracing, punk minutes of post-everything, out-there, futurist electronic madness. Drexciya would be proud. B PLUS
Patrick Cowley & Candida Royalle, Candida Cosmica
It’s impossible not to view Patrick Cowley’s career through the lens of sex — whether you know him as a porn soundtrack maestro, the author of randy singles like “Menergy”, or one of the first casualties of HIV in post-free love San Francisco. Candida Cosmica, his newly unearthed ‘70s collaboration with his then-roommate Candida Royalle — who’d go on to a trailblazing career in feminist porn, both in front of and behind the camera — won’t do much to change this perception.
But Candida Cosmica isn’t about sex. Quite the opposite, in fact; it’s a celebration of boozy 20-something roommate love, the equivalent of one of those Bandcamp albums that are clearly just two friends fucking around. Cowley plays synth, more experimentally and less melodically than usual, while Royalle delivers moans and bits of garbled speech (and a short, endearing song about a tomato that gets turned into a Bloody Mary). I can’t imagine Cowley’s entreaty to Royalle to record her vocals was much more formal than “hey, do you wanna moan over these synth noises I made?” – followed by a swig of cheap beer or a pass of a shoddy ‘70s spliff. Don’t come expecting eye-opening feminist insights from Royalle; she’s just having fun here.
This isn’t a history-redefining document on the scale of School Daze or Muscle Up, the revelatory compilations of his ambient work unearthed by Dark Entries Records. But the kind of primitive synth abstraction found here is in vogue these days, from the Buchla birdsong of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani’s Sunergy to the chic-cute nostalgia of Survive. Anyone who can get down with that sound will find Candida Cosmica a delightful if slight trip through foreboding arpeggios, piercing sonar shrieks, and wet, almost fecal plops and splats.
It’s hard not to survey Candida Cosmica with sadness. This is a snapshot of a carefree, seemingly utopian time in American history, a time when a porn soundtracker and a porn star could throw back a few beers, smoke a joint or two, make an album, maybe go dancing, have some wild, anonymous sex, and feel great at the end of the night. Knowing the horrors in store, their effect on marginalized communities across the globe, and the criminal, hateful refusal of Ronald Reagan’s government to acknowledge them undercuts the joy this music radiates. B