Review Summary: Vietnamese Donuts; made in France.
It’s 2006 and the global hip-hop community is mourning recent the loss of legendary beat-maker and all-round revered genius J Dilla, whose music has had a profound effect on one certain young French musician; a not-long graduated, broke Onra. The hip-hop upstart has scraped the funds together to visit Vietnam in order to delve into his heritage (his grandparents are Vietnamese) and to gather samples for his first solo LP. I could continue writing about years past but this is all the scene-setting that is required to get a good idea of what this album sounds like; with Chinoiseries (which translates as ‘Chinese-esque’ from French), Onra combines hip-hop beats (complete with strong JayDee-esque inclinations) with classic east-Asian sounds. Whilst the homage to J Dilla is obvious, particularly in the structure of the record and in the presentation of the beats, this does little to diminish Chinoiseries as being one of the freshest and most listenable hip-hop releases of the last few years.
What is immediately striking from the beginning of the record is not just how well Onra manages to create a sound that gets the most out of its Asian source material, but how well the material lends itself to and integrates with hip-hop rhythms. Rather than just having oriental melodies moving over the top beats, Onra seems to make a conscious effort to make the samples instrumental to the beat itself. For an example of this you need look no further than album kick-starter ‘The Anthem’ (which you may but probably won’t remember from the Coke advert during the Beijing Olympics), which will have your head bopping with approval for its entire 1 minute 49 seconds running time. The choppy vocal sample introduced in this track only goes to enhance the groove and is, like all vocal samples on the record, in an East-Asian language. These samples are the only voice the record has and by making it this way, Onra lets each one contribute towards the mood of a track purely through how it sounds, which we naturally pay more attention to as we can’t understand the literal meaning of what is being said. The unfamiliarity of the samples when compared to the usual sounds of hip-hop are what makes Chinoiseries so compelling – it is not so much comprised of songs but of tiny compositions and arrangements. The Asian elements never seem to jar as Onra has not set out to create something authentically Vietnamese; instead, he has delivered tunes that succeed in conjuring a huge variety of emotive soundscapes that would appeal to anyone regardless of culture from a relatively small array of sounds, making Chinoiseries both impressively cohesive and vibrantly dynamic.
Album highlights appear thick and fast, the aforementioned ‘The Anthem’ being the first purely for its huge beat, but ultimately each one delivers in its own unique way. ‘Relax In Mui Ne’, a much smoother track, has a brilliantly spliced together vocal melody over twanging Chinese strings and manages to feel like a leisurely boat trip whilst being a wonderfully precise composition, whereas ‘War’ is a brief (coming in at only 58 seconds) but powerfully tragic catharsis, complete with mournful tremolo-picked strings and a despairing vocal sample. A personal favourite of mine, ‘The Vallee of Love’, exemplifies what makes this album so special – the violin sample couldn’t be any more fitting for such an unashamedly joyful song, however it’s hard to imagine the song working with traditional hip-hop source material without it coming across as trite or cheesy. With Chinoiseries, Onra has managed to capture some of the old romanticism associated with travelling to an extent I have not heard since The Avalanches’ ‘Since I Left You’. It really is a unique achievement; the album transports you to places you never thought hip-hop could take you to.
For all of Chinoiseries strengths though, I do have one or two minor issues with the album. Of all main influences to pick from, Onra could certainly do worse than J Dilla, however there are times when you may find yourself thinking you’re listening to a dodgy Chinese bootleg of Donuts. ‘I Wanna Go Back’ and ‘Take A Ride’, both without a doubt very enjoyable tracks, do possibly borrow slightly too much from the school of Jay Dee, especially in the pattern of repetition and stalling beats that are so prevalent on Donuts. Also, the format of the album (32 songs, most less than 2 minutes) means that comparisons to Dilla’s final release are almost unavoidable, as this unusual structure is exactly the same as on Donuts, however whilst it is beyond doubt that this is where Onra drew this idea from, it is definitely the perfect way in which to present these Chinese-esque sound bites. Ultimately these criticisms (if they can be called that) only detract from the freshness of Chinoiseries incredibly slightly, as the sound and mood of most of the album is pitched in a way that is completely unique to most hip-hop currently doing the rounds and this is undoubtedly something to celebrate.
Chionoiseries takes you on an all-encompassing journey through the middle-east, covering a terrifically wide range of soundscapes. One minute you’ll be nodding along (‘Boundless Boundaries’), the next you’ll be dancing along (‘Apocalypse Now’) and before you know it you’ll just be grinning like an idiot (‘What Up Duyet’). Yes it borrows from J Dilla, yes it tails off slightly towards the end, but each track is so playfully yet thoughtfully constructed that you’ll be having too much fun to care even if you don’t like the track currently playing. The next track comes on in 40 seconds anyway, and it’s going to take you to another place entirely.