Even under the most benign conditions, artist backslide tends to imply that, somewhere along the line, something went wrong behind the scenes. Now, the severity of that something is always anyone’s guess, and honestly, it’s rarely life-threatening. Mistakes like these can be fixed, and they usually are. But it doesn’t matter: Regression sucks at veiling itself as something else.
This makes distinguishing the difference between accidental relapse and deliberate reinvention both incredibly tedious and wildly essential. Call the wrong shot, and an artist’s possibly genius attempt at refining an old trick may be mistaken for an intentional return to an already dried well. The margin for error is so slim, the word “margin,” barely applies. It’s enough to dissuade most artists from ever looking back at all. But should it be? Should the threat of insignificance serve as the yellow tape around an artist’s past life? Is forward just the de facto direction, or is it the only direction?
Chaz Bundick doesn’t care.
Chaz Bundick doesn’t care because he too busy asking himself different, more pertinent questions—questions related to both the current status of his craft and the shape he’d like his craft to take over time. The quality leap that takes place between debut LP Causers of This and 2011’s Underneath the Pine is textbook corroboration that practice makes perfect—significant praise until you consider that the jump made between Pine and 2013's Anything In Return is even more dramatic than that.
In short, Bundick is blessed with a knack for self-editing. He understands his shortcomings so clearly that each album perfects whatever was wrong with the album before it. Causers of This was too ambient and unpolished, so Underneath the Pine boasted near-faultless clarity. Pine, however, exploited the shake and nervousness of a still-fledgling voice, so Anything In Return showcased a vocal track that was as clear and confident as we had ever heard from Bundick before. Return was a little too dancy, though, so What For? capitalized on a more psychedelic motif. None of these albums are totally different from one another, but from a bird’s eye view, the intricacies add up, and Toro Y Moi's story arc looks way more impressive.
So when exploring surprise full-length mixtape Samantha, should it concern anyone that much of it harkens back to the raw, unfinished qualities of Toro Y Moi’s earlier work? Generally, the answer would be yes.
Except Chaz Bundick doesn’t care.
He backslides on purpose. He capitalizes on Causers’ fluid, breezy, purposefully unfinished aesthetic by repurposing it into a support role for truly badass guest spots. He warps his own voice to a barely recognizable degree while toying with funky break-beats and throwback Moog riffs. He samples dialogue from The Notebook for nearly half a song. And 15 of the 20 tracks on Samantha cover fewer than three minutes of ground. Essentially, it’s an arty concept album for listeners who purposefully avoid arty concept albums.
To that end, Bundick cleverly disguised Samantha to be more of a hip-hop album. This was an easier move than it sounds, given the kind of help that was enlisted. The always-on Kool A.D. drops honey-dipped hooks throughout much of Samantha, but no song vibes quite like “2 Late” does. Here, autotuned vocals pace-car a track that seems to get slower and slower by the verse, but never at the expense of the mood. Meanwhile, hip-hop wunderkind Rome Fortune drops something sinister on “Pitch Black”, Samantha’s most inherently repeatable track. Harnessing an original flow is scant anymore, so it’s nice to witness Fortune giving “Pitch Black”, and Puff Daddy rework “Benjiminz”, a truly unique backbone.
Make no mistake: Samantha is barely an album, per se. There’s a reason why every major publication had a hard time describing this thing last Friday. It’s only kind of an album for the same reason why it’s only kind of a mixtape: The theme is buoyant if not a bit obscure. Almost none of these tracks ever clearly and explicitly feature Bundick on vocals, while almost all of them feel more like a DJ set of original songs. To make matters more confusing, it couldn’t be any farther away from What For?, an album released fewer than five months ago.
Samantha was allegedly written and recorded between 2012 and 2014, which might explain the discrepancy, but it doesn’t necessarily explain why Bundick decided to drop such an outlying collection so unexpectedly. But it doesn’t matter; his impulsiveness is an early Christmas gift. Samantha, despite its resemblance to a past-tense version of Toro Y Moi, is a present-tense triumph that moves so coolly and confidently, “forward progress” suddenly seems like a horrible idea. B MINUS
Download Samantha for free here.