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SBTRKT Steps Out of Familiar Sound On "SAVE YOURSELF"

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

If we’re still looking for nicknames to describe the musical year that’s been in 2016, might I suggest “The Year of the Surprise Release”? Granted, two of those “surprise” releases were at the hands of Doug from TIDAL (The Watch plug - hello Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan), in which Rihanna and Kanye worked to assert their social over financial currency preferences. Then we saw Kendrick release untitled unmastered., a left field release that somehow operates on the level of To Pimp a Butterfly and somewhat dethroned Kanye from his throne atop the musical zeitgeist. Obviously, there’s a common denominator amongst all three of these giant releases (no, its not that they were all featured on The Life of Pablo, thought you’re headed in the right direction) – they’re all hip-hop based albums, even with Kanye’s constant assertions of TLOP being a gospel record.

Don’t worry, that’s all the Kanye talk this review has in store, but long-winded intro aside, there’s something to be said for hip-hop lending itself to being a disruptive force that would benefit from guerrilla style releases rather than the usual promotional cycle. Keeping with the recent slew of first quarter surprise releases, collaborator/producer extraordinaire SBTRKT has added his name to the heavy hitting list.

SBTRKT is a producer that I’ve come to become increasingly fond of with each subsequent release – not necessarily for his musical handiwork (though I do enjoy it), but rather his ability to get such fantastic features on his records. Early SBTRKT featured Jessie Ware, Little Dragon, and other releases included Raury and Ezra Koenig, making each of his records a stimulating exploration in collaborative coordination and SBTRKT’s understanding of musical cohesion.

Newest release to date, SAVE YOURSELF, is also his most cohesive – continuing the trend of steady and substantial maturity as a producer and creative mind. Outside of the aged development of the record, SAVE YOURSELF also touts itself as the most intrepid release by SBTRKT, with effectively one week’s worth of promotion leading up to the surprise release of the album.

Most of SBTRKT’s albums are at least ten tracks deep – the longest of his long-play efforts, Wonder Where We Land, featured a tracklist twenty-two songs long. SAVE YOURSELF is an interesting diversion from SBTRKT’s prior releases, as the record only contains nine tracks – making SAVE YOURSELF some strange convergence between an EP and LP. Furthermore, the production on SAVE YOURSELF is an interesting departure from the heavy-jungle rhythms of past – SAVE YOURSELF sounds like a heavy mixture of Chrome Sparks meets Madeon style house music. There are still the apparent hip-hop, R&B, and funk amalgamation that’s considered a SBTRKT touchstone, but SAVE YOURSELF also features more adventurous studies into trap music, as well.  

In terms of the house vs. trap music contention present in SAVE YOURSELF, the record opens with the aforementioned Madeon-esque bright beat driven opener “GEMINI,” reminiscent of a hopeful space odyssey as synth drive the song along with twinkling piano and tones with little to no percussion at all before fading into the album’s truly introductory track, “GOOD MORNING.” As mentioned before, SBTRKT is an artist/producer who is largely defined by those he collaborates with, and in terms of past collaborations, his collaboration with The-Dream on “GOOD MORNING” is arguably one of his best to date. The song focuses largely on celebrating the commitment to remaining steadfast in love; exploring marriage, child rearing ("Here’s to the baby that you’re going to carry”) and loyalty. It’s a stunningly mature and specific track for a SBTRKT song considering most of his songs in the past have focused largely on vague interactions or allegorical scenarios. The lyrical focus should be credited to The-Dream, who has found second life as a songwriter after his brief stint as a solo artist in the early to mid 2000s.

SAVE YOURSELF is SBTRKT’s best long-play release by a long shot – for starting out as a self-taught producer, the growth over three album’s time makes for an impressive coming of age record on SAVE YOURSELF. It also features SBTRKT’s finest collaboration with frequent collaborator, Sampha, on “TBD.” The track opens with 808 beats eerily reminiscent of Chrome Sparks as ominous guttural noises layered over chimey hits before Sampha begins to wail over the track at its first break. Having followed SBTRKT’s journey since his first EP, its safe to say that “TBD” sees SBTRKT and Sampha connecting in such a collaborative manner that the shifts from house to soul to trap in a single song issues no obstacle for the two.

Following Wonder Where We Land, it started to appear as though SBTRKT was an A&R gem that had begun to run out of creative juice, and a follow-up to the robust sophomore effort would need to see some substantial changes made, or at the least explored. SBTRKT had become an artist who needed to show some growth, with self-taught production only extended so far on the A&R plane. Luckily, SAVE YOURSELF allows SBTRKT to really grow and live within some unchartered territory that is so considerably divergent, its hard not to be impressed that such a gamble would be made in the first place. It almost feels as if SAVE YOURSELF was a representative manifesto of SBTRKT’s mindset in regard to continuing his young and verdant career.