IT ISN’T HARD to find decent electronic music nowadays. In fact, 30 seconds of SoundCloud scrolling should lead you to either an original composition or a remix that is at least satisfactory. But what’s so often missing from electronic music is humanity, which is what sets the dispensable and indispensible apart. Huge synths and booming drums are usually fun, but they can also be done by almost anyone and leave little lasting impact on the listener.
The Range’s new album Potential overflows with humanity, and that fact is what elevates it from just a quality electronic record to a universally important piece of work. Largely built around YouTube clips that James Hinton spent hours hunting, the samples here are far from gaudy, comprised mostly of amateur singers and rappers. This technique could come off as gimmicky in the hands of a less talented producer, but Hinton does an excellent job weaving his songs together in a way that feels natural and understated. After hearing just a few tracks on Potential you get the sense that these samples mean more to Hinton than they do to most artists.
The album begins with “Regular,” and a stirring quote that sets an urgent, emotional tone. “Right now I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it, but even if – I’ll just decide to move on.”
“Copper Wire” borrows bars from a young British MC by the name of Kruddy Zak, whose freestyle resonated with Hilton because Zak mentions 2009, which happened to be the year his mother passed. The rapping, with its slightly spotty quality and loose sense of time, is a powerful contrast to Hilton’s glimmering production.
Lead single “Florida” is masterful, chopping an a capella rendition of Ariana Grande’s “You’ll Never Know” into a moody, massive slow burn that recalls artists like SBTRKT and Caribou. Hinton throws in a few intriguing quirks, like a steel drum line, but the highest peak on “Florida” is clearly his deconstruction of the Grande song.
“Falling Out of Phase” moves at an almost unnervingly slow pace, forcing listeners to sit with its hook, “I’m slowly falling out of love with you,” for longer than they’d like. Built around twitchy drums and twinkling synths, it’s a powerful cut that conveys more about the end of a relationship in one line than most ballads do in three verses.
“Retune” is the breeziest track here, built around snappy percussion and a thundering piano bass line, but it isn’t completely devoid of melancholy, with a somber breakdown that artfully repurposes both the song’s underlying sample and the oscillating piano.
There aren’t any bad songs here, but sometimes it’s hard not to wish Hinton would expand his tool bag a bit. He rarely deviates from the piano-sampler-synth-drums model, and it would be fascinating to see him open himself up with a bit of live instrumentation. In terms of tempo, there isn’t a huge amount of diversity. Hinton likes to give his samples room to breathe, so he rarely pushes the pace, although it’d be fascinating to hear him work in a quicker, more trip-hop template.
Still, Potential is a unique and immersive album, and one that sends a powerful message to Hinton’s fellow producers. Samples are more than just clips to be manipulated with a keyboard; they are people and stories that play a huge role in shaping the course of an album. Throughout the recording process, Hinton corresponded with the people he was sampling and got to know them on a personal level, something that clearly informed the composition of his sophomore LP.
That connection will ultimately be the legacy of Potential; it’s an album that is equal parts man and machine. The Range is a testament to the cynic that the Internet really can be a means of uniting people in a meaningful way, and Potential is one of the early musical highlights of 2016. B PLUS