PORTER ROBINSON REVEALS NEW SOUND WITH DEBUT ‘VIRTUAL SELF’ EP
In late January 2017, multi-talented musician and producer Porter Robinson confused fans and critics alike with a tweet declaring all but eleven songs in the extensive catalog he built over the previous 12 years as “unofficial.”
The 25-year-old Chapel Hill native confirmed his disavowment of all of his previous work outside of those eleven songs, represented by a Spotify playlist titled This Is: Porter Robinson and made up mostly of tracks from his 2014 Worlds album, collab tracks with the likes of Madeon and Mat Zo, and his remix of Nero‘s The Thrill, with posts on Snapchat in response to the many questions and misrepresentations he’d heard from followers.
With the release of the five-track debut EP self-titled under Robinson’s new moniker Virtual Self earlier this week, he has revealed a drastically different sound and created a fascinating easter-egg hunt for fans to gain insight into its origin and influences.
In anticipation of the project’s release, Robinson revealed an accompanying website to the EP, virtualself.co and it is a story unto itself (Check out the page source for starters.) The cryptic site kept fans busy with a variety of vague hints and worked to reveal the split personality of Robinson’s new alter-ego, represented by characters named Technic-Angel and Pathselector, and illustrated through official videos for the first official singles EON Break and Ghost Voices.
The characters seem to personify the duality of the project’s sound, with the lighter and more upbeat tracks, including EON Break, as well as new releases Particle Arts and Key, belonging to Technic-Angel. These tracks have more obvious ties to Robinson’s previous work with the use of tender vocal dubs and a similar synth and white noise style, but with a quicker pace and more traditional house-feel mixed with the soundtrack of an early 2000s video game.
The two Pathselector tracks, Ghost Voices and a.i.ngel (Become God), each run at higher BPMs and bounce with thunderous bass, in a manner entirely unseen in Robinson’s previous works. Club bangers have never really been Robinson’s groove in the past, but these are certified bangers and I hope there are more where they came from lying in wait in the heady artist’s pipeline.
All five tracks show the level of production mastery we have come to expect from Porter, and if the drastic changes fans witnessed him undergo over the last year continue to progress in 2018 as should be expected, he will continue to prove why critics lauded him as a prodigy in his early years, and why fans continue to obsess over his every move.
Robinson will debut his Virtual Self live performance on December 8, at the Avant Gardner in Brooklyn.
You can stream Virtual Self now on your favorite platform or the official site page, virtualself.co/virtualselfep.
4 Your Eyez Only - J. Cole
Few rap artists are as polarizing as Jermaine Lamarr Cole. The Roc Nation rapper from Fayetteville, N.C., better known as J. Cole, has split listeners for years. Critics have called him corny, boring, and preachy. Others have praised him for speaking out on issues other rappers won’t touch, such as fears of death, love, and ultimately most aspects of life that do not revolve solely around fame, money, sex or drugs. I have always respected J. Cole for his ability to craft dense narrative stories in his work. Cole showed the world he could craft an entirely individual album worthy of platinum certification on 2014 Forest Hills Drive. With this year’s 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole takes an even greater step back from mainstream rap, and a leap forward as one of today’s strongest lyricists.
The ten-track album linearly explores aspects of an individual’s life with each song. Through the first half of the album, J. Cole illustrates the shifting nature of the mind during formative years of youth, searching for purpose and reason. On For Whom the Bells Toll, arguably one of Cole’s most somber tracks to date, he admits to fears of dying and worries he holds about the legacy he will leave. With Immortal, the focus shifts to false pride and confidence those surviving on the streets are expected to keep. “All I see is that C.R.E.A.M. n---a, that green, I’m a black king, black jeans on my black queen,” Cole raps in one verse, before cautioning against such beliefs in the outro, “They tellin’ n----s ‘Sell dope, rap or go to NBA’ (in that order), It’s that sort of thinkin’ that been keepin’ n---as chained.” Deja Vu, a track I expect to explode in live performances, examines a struggle with conflicted romantic feelings. In Ville Mentality, Cole reflects on these themes and seems to realize the need to mature past them.
On She’s Mine Pt. 1, J. Cole shifts forward in life. On the melodic love song, the artist expresses his adoration for a woman and his need to open to her about his troubled past. “The same wall that’s stopping me from letting go and shedding tears, from the lack of having father, and the passing of my peers. While I’m too scared to expose myself, it turns out, you know me better than I know myself,” he says. With new-found love, Cole takes on a more positive perspective in the rhythmic Change. One of the densest tracks on the album lyrically and my personal favorite, Cole remains conscious of his splintered identity, but finds that “the only real change come from inside.” Listeners are also given the first direct reference to the death of J. Cole’s friend James McMillan Jr. in the mournful outro. With a back-and-forth flow and a bass-heavy beat, Neighbors, may be the closest to a mainstream rap track on the project, yet Cole never wavers from his conscientious approach. “I can’t sleep cause I’m paranoid, black in a white man territory. Cops bust in with the army guns, no evidence of the harm we done,” Cole raps. Finally, in Foldin Clothes, J. Cole takes a rather unprecedented approach for the genre in discussing the ways he hopes to aid his pregnant significant other.
With She’s Mine Pt. 2, Cole expresses new love once again, this time for a newborn girl. The track is another shift of maturity. The previously troubled artist has found his purpose. “Don’t want to die, ‘cause now you’re here,” he says, bringing the album full-circle from the opening track, leading into the crucial finale, 4 Your Eyez Only. The album’s title track reveals the metaphorical nature of the entire album. In the first verse, the true character of the album, whom many believe to be the previously mentioned McMillan, reveals that the project is a way of connecting with his daughter after his death. “If the pressure get to much for me to take and I break, play this tape for my daughter and let her know my life is on it,” Cole raps. The father gives his daughter a glimpse into his own life and the circumstances that took him away, hoping desperately that she will find a better life outside of the cyclical pattern he knows he was caught in. Marked by an extended drum and violin instrumental, Cole returns as himself in the final verse to explain the album’s meaning in his own words. The father tells Cole “The only thing I’m proud to say ‘I was a father,’ write my story down and if I pass, go play it for my daughter.” With his final bars, J. Cole expresses his thoughts on mass incarceration and life in the projects before revealing to the daughter that her father was a special man because of his love for her if nothing else.
Upon first listen, many will take J. Cole’s fourth studio album as another slow, and preachy project. Rather, I believe the narrative arc and metaphorical continuity drawn across these ten individual tracks are masterful examples of the fact that lyricism in rap music is not dead, but forgotten by those calculating artistic prowess using mainstream success.
There's A Lot Going On - Vic Mensa
Socially critical Chicago rapper Vic Mensa released his newest project There’s A Lot Going On this week, and the highly political project highlights a variety of themes and styles, giving listeners a strong sense of Mensa’s versatility. From police shootings and poverty to door-delivered alcohol, the largely underground rapper finds a way to fit a great deal of content in only seven tracks.
Mensa opens with an aggressive flow and clever bars on top of a bass-heavy beat on Dynasty, announcing his artistic anger.
16 Shots, the project’s most violent and emotionally influential track puts the scope on the brutal killing of Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police in 2014. The song is Mensa’s militant response to the ruthless violence, its title reflecting the number of bullets the 17-year-old was hit with, many long after he had fallen to the pavement. A haunting intermission breaks down the shooting, leaving an unmistakable sense of guilt and shame.
In Danger, Mensa proves he is as hard as the south side of the city he was raised in, illuminating the prevalence of violence and physical danger during his youth. He also introduces his perspective on the strange tug-and-pull relationships he shares with Roc Nation, Jay Z’s label and Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music.
Mensa steps away from the politics and takes a much lighter approach on New Bae, a more typical male-dominated relationship track. Heavy use of autotune borders on excessive but somehow works in much the same way fellow up-and-coming rapper Travis Scott capitalizes on the technology. A drastic flow change almost feels like a feature until Mensa reveals himself by returning to his typical style, cementing a track built for the charts.
In reality, the only feature on the project comes from chart-star Ty Dolla $ign on Liquor Locker. The summer party song explores a relationship centered around intoxication and seems the second most likely track to receive radio airplay and mainstream success.
Discussing the water crisis in Flint, Mich., misplaced attention on fleeting trends in US pop culture, and the impact of the media on social issues, Mensa returns to conscious-centered themes in Shades of Blue.
Saving arguably the best for last, There’s A Lot Going On concludes with a track by the same name, in which Mensa takes a hyper-descriptive exploration through his own life and career. Going far deeper than most artists are willing to go. Divulging his previous addiction to Adderall, involvement in a violent domestic dispute, and a depression brought on during career lulls, Mensa climbs all the way back from his darkest days to his current peak. After moving back with his Mom, he started fresh. He met Kanye West and recorded Wolves on 2016’s The Life of Pablo, along with his own single U Mad before releasing his first official EP.
There’s A Lot Going On is one of the most aptly named projects I have heard in awhile. Vic Mensa’s honesty is refreshing. His take on some of the darkest issues in our country today gave him a platform to display his incredible artistic ability and range. The final bar may say it best, “I’d like to welcome ya’ll to my season.” After numerous features already this year with some of music’s biggest names, this strong project may be Mensa’s true breakout.