Review Summary: Looking back, grounded in the present
“You are known by the company you keep”; never has this saying been less true than it has been with Kaytranada. Louis Kevin Celestin appears in interviews and features as a quiet, shy man, one whose struggles with depression and his own sexuality (he came out publicly as gay in a feature for The Fader
last month) have kept him in a solitary place for years. His music, on the other hand, has seen its most significant support (until his signing with XL Recordings) on fist-pumping dudebro havens like Majestic Casual and the “future bass” corner of SoundCloud. Celestin, after all, made a name for himself among the first wave of SoundCloud superstars like Lido and ODESZA with his booty-shakin’ flips of everyone from Janet Jackson to Flume. Until recently, he’s been best known for blunted, percussive house reimaginings of classic tracks, and sometime last year he decided that reputation needed to change. “They were calling me a house producer, but that’s not me,” he says in the Fader
piece. “I make all kinds of beats.”
, in this sense, is a fulfilment of the promise of “all kinds of beats.” Whereas Kaytranada’s earlier work stays pretty comfortably within the confines of bumpin’, poppy deep house a la Disclosure or AlunaGeorge, his new album is more a synthesis of hip-hop excellence than anything else. There’s the obvious - killer (if more traditional) beats underlying verses from Vic Mensa and Anderson .Paak, tracks titles like “Breakdance Lesson N. 1” - but pretty much everything, from the album’s funk to its gospel, is tinted with an undeniably hip-hop ethos. “Bus Ride,” despite being overtly jazz (especially thanks to an excellent drum performance by jazz musician Karriem Riggins), is a consummate head-nodder, as much indebted to Madlib as it is to Nat King Cole. Closer “Bullets” weaves a willowy house structure with chunky breaks and plucky, forceful bass, much looser and funkier than much of its traditionally Whiter influence.
I don’t choose these comparative artists and sounds without reason: Celestin, from his interviews, is very conscious about the racial associations of his music. His brother has argued, in reference to Kay’s music, that “every EDM producer is white, or it’s dominated by the white population,” and there’s no question that Kaytranada has been affected by that Whiteness. A large proportion of those associated with his music - fellow uploadees of various popular YouTube music-promo channels, popular SoundCloud producers often mentioned in the same breath as him (even I’m not immune to this, as you can see above), even XL co-stars like Adele and Mumdance - are, indeed, White, and it seems relatively clear that the producer is making an effort to establish himself as a proudly Black artist rooted in Haitian and Black American culture.
Interestingly, Kaytranada’s vision of the Black culture that comes to fruition on 99.9%
is less a celebration of the modern iteration of the culture and more a love letter to the hip-hop world of yore. It’s not a snapshot of the stuff coming out today (as Kay put it, record execs “want that 808, [..] I still put 808 on my shit, but it’s just a different kind of 808.”) as much as it is a reflection of the glory days of a decade or four ago. The thing is, 99.9%
wears its influences on its sleeve - listen to “Lite Spots” and try to tell me you can’t hear any Dilla - and that’s
what makes it such a cutting-edge release. The internet has been fairly kind to hip-hop, especially as of the past several years, and part of what makes it such a special tool is the obsessive consumption it allows. It’s always been a referential genre - it’s literally founded on sampling, after all - and it’s been particularly strong recently because, as more great music from present and past is discovered and rediscovered, that new material becomes a foundation for newer iterations and interpretations of its core sound.
[99.9%], then, is a quintessentially modern record not in terms of its sound in isolation (if you’re looking for sloppy, trappy beats a la Future or Young Thug, I’m sure you haven’t yet heard at least one of their dozens of mixtapes) but in terms of its attitude. It’s a vintage hip-hop-influenced sound, but it’s so many different shades of that vintage that it’s a record that is quintessentially 2016. It’s buffeted by ‘70s breaking and early ‘00s weed-laced beats and the post-SoundCloud inundations into the markets Kaytranada once found himself in, and it places all these disparate and conflicting ideas together into a neat package. It’s loudly Black both in terms of its values and its response to the Whiteness of its field, and it’s rooted in hip-hop culture in so many different ways that it’s frankly incredible that everything ends up sounding coherent and tight. 99.9%
is an assertion of identity and a rejection of identity and a whole lot of other things all at once, and provides some of the most incredible music of the year all the same.