Sam Baker’s Album
, August 4th, 2011 12:19
Out of all the abstracted takes on hip-hop to have emerged from Steve Ellison's (aka Flying Lotus) Brainfeeder label, and the Los Angeles scene that surrounds it, Sam Baker's feels most grounded in physical reality. Although it remains as in debt to Dilla's woozy, scattered-across-the-beat-grid vision of the genre, his music as Samiyam keeps its head firmly out of the fuzzy ether explored by contemporaries like Lotus and Matthewdavid. With that in mind, his signing an EP to Hyperdub in 2008 made sense. For a start, it helped to cement the conduit of creative energy flowing between London and LA at the time, with Kode9 and Lotus in particular sharing ideas, inspirations and studio space. But where Ellison's music has a tendency to travel off on psychedelic, impossibly busy tangents, Samiyam's emphasis on relative simplicity and dancefloor weight ensured he felt perfectly at home among the synth-ridden dubstep mutations Hyperdub were putting out at the time. It might have been something of a departure for Kode9's label - the only (relatively) straight-up hip-hop 12" it's released to date – but its effect on a crowd was, like Joker or Zomby's music, akin to mass electrocution.
His debut album proper, Sam Baker's Album, is more connected to the roots of hip-hop than anything Brainfeeder has yet put out. As a collective, they've consistently pushed at the genre's boundaries, hinting at its potential for meditative transcendence (Ellison himself, whose Warp-released Los Angeles opus shared early dubstep's tendency towards total immersion), finely tempered, glitchy aggression (the alternatively ethereal and mechanistic spaces of Mono/Poly's Manifestations EP) and oceanic sensory deprivation (Matthewdavid's underrated Outmind, which has a similar effect on mind and body as dream explorers Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never). As a result, comparatively little music on the label has felt overly concerned by its potential on club floors, though admittedly many of its artists' live performances are dragged along by the irresistible undertow of sub-bass. So Sam Baker's Album is immediately appealing, simply by virtue of the fact that it's so compulsively danceable – even if most of its tracks operate in slow motion. Opener 'Escape' drifts into view in a wash of cocaine-garish synth stabs and sudden snags in rhythm, before suddenly settling into a low-slung groove that's constructed from as few elements as possible. Its smeared synth tones and tortured moans are swamped in reverb and delay, lending it a dubby feel and a sense of endlessly expanding space, a flat landscape stretching out to infinity in all directions.
Both in construction – most tracks clock in below the three-minute mark, small components in the album's whole – and atmosphere, Sam Baker's Album is reminiscent of Flying Lotus' Los Angeles. The differences remain clearly apparent, in particular with regards to the simplicity of its rhythms, which are of the straightforward boom-bap variety as opposed to the jagged asymmetry of Ellison's beats. But like Los Angeles, its tone and mood strongly evoke a Lynchian vision of LA itself, all semi-suburban sprawl and striplit sleaze. 'Cushion' sounds like a slow drive around the red-light ends of town, all drawn-out synth tones and glimmers in the high end; 'Pressure' is soaked in the reddish glow of sunset. But where Los Angeles traveled in the astral plane, viewing the city as a hallucinatory mirage, the combined product of its inhabitants' dreams and nightmares, Samiyam's view of LA is gritty and real, carrying itself with a far more street-level swagger.
And just like Los Angeles, it requires full-length listening to fully absorb. Taken separately its component tracks can feel slightly shallow, lacking in the necessary context to bring them fully to life. In the mix on a dancefloor would do perfectly, though in many cases the crowd would probably remain content to linger in a stoned haze rather than shake an arm. The album itself works in a similar way, where each track contributes to the wider whole. The result is a woozily involving mood piece that encompasses everything from the shimmering heat of daytime ('Lifesized Stuffed Animal', where music box chimes rub up against disoriented square wave bass) to the dead of night, caught in the lairy drunken lurch of 'Kitties'. At its best, the world Sam Baker's Album evokes is both dramatic and strangely placid, as though observing the chaos of urban life through tinted car windows.