Review Summary: i85mixxmeupi85mixx21-22
is the first album I’ve heard in forever that has gotten deeply under my skin even though I’ve never once listened to it within my own space and comfort. This was by coincidence: I found it at the start of a final travel itinerary through a country I was reluctantly saying a long-term farewell to, and its fractured narrative of grief, despair and artistic struggle provided an unexpectedly close companion through my revolving door of half-familiar cities, trains too efficient to sleep on, cafes on the fringes of world heritage sites, nonplussed partings with new friends met along the way, inscriptions of postcards to old ones with half-remembered faces, unknown bedrooms, bathrooms that smelled of strangers, and era-of-life--severing airports. Everything else I turned to throughout that trip was nostalgic or self-soundtracking, but i85mixx21-22
found me wherever I went on wavelengths of its own. Goodness knows why: maybe there’s a point to be made about how its ever-shifting tempos x cascading jungle beats would be wasted on a single static chair in one’s fixed abode; maybe its several-radio-stations’-worth of samples and stylistic left-turns cover enough ground to transcend such minutiae as listening environment; maybe its emotional journey was tailor-made for a sadboi half-knowingly on the run from himself. Maybe it is just that good?
This is perhaps an odd way to open the book on experimental hip-hop mastermind Material Girl's latest. It’s a record that rewards a thoughtful listener more than most; I don’t know how helpful authorial self-reflection (rusty habit) is as a warm-up to lazergazing the many reasons why you should usher it into your life with intent and alacrity, but I’d like to think that this speaks to the kind of imprint it leaves. That’s a start (you’re welcome). Just describe the music
cry the happy eaters and fussy readers, but i85mixx21-22
’s inventory and palette - though frequently wonderful in their own right - are a paltry representation of its shape or scheme. You could
frame it as a selectively abstracted hip-hop canvas strewn with overlapping spatterings of jazz and jungle, but these are all foundation rather than focus. What does this record amount to? Nothing concrete or integral enough for a convenient one-liner: if this thing has any aspirations of grandeur or perfection, they're well-hidden beneath layer upon layer of self-awareness, uncertainty, laboured stylistic discontinuity, and obtrusively, awkwardly, unapologetically emotional rap performances.
What does this all orbit?
is a far more helpful question now that we’ve got a read on the go. Material Girl, together with his cast of sampled excerpts and original collaborators, presents two common threads: one of confronting the death of a close friend, one of creative uncertainty. Though it receives some measure of explication on “i85mixxdemo” (4) and “i85mixxremix” (11), the former is a less a full narrative and more a deeply fractured bedrock that informs the latter; a huge part of the record is oriented towards, even at pains over, the process, form and motivation for its own construction. Just look at that tracklist: instead of a list of distinct songs, we are treated to a ‘song idea’, entitled “i85mixx～” and filtered through thirteen permutations, none of which individually posit a final form. It isn’t random - “i85mixxinterlude” (6) and “i85mixxreprise” (12), say, are true to their titles - but the impression of a working title, an incomplete statement, a cluster of separate angles on something that cannot be articulated in absolute terms is a fitting match for the way Material Girl approaches his subject matter. He does so with myriad devices, only to stumble over it in (over?)charged delivery and retract into his maze of samples the moment his true colours acquire what seems like a definitive hue.
This may mine a little generously from the album’s prosaics, but it’s a sense equally prevalent in the [deep breath] music. The opener “i85mixxalbumversion” consists of five minutes of wonderfully intricate instrumental collage, only for Material Girl to pop up at the end and openly question what any of it is aid of; the first half of “i85mixxlive” (7) is more silence than song, disparate echoes that strive and repeatedly fail to fill the void excavated by its opening flurry of I miss you
s, while “i85mixxacapella” (8) recurrently punctuates the flow of its verse with hysterical vocal affectations, abrupt cutaways of its central sample, and even a brief siren blare. This is a record full of concerted immersion-breaking choices that go to great lengths to foreground themselves as such; all its most forthcoming moments are quick to catch sight of their reflection and blush back into obliqueness. That arc of grief ties in here: the odd outburst (I’M JUST SO TIRED OF LOSING FRIENDS
) or a tribute at the top of a promotional tweet aside, Material Girl frames a surprising amount of his trauma through allusion and paints the album as a work torn equally between what he is and isn’t prepared to express. Each track, each grasp at the “i85mixxfinal” cut, is just a fresh way of navigating this, and its two sides draw distinct benefit from one another: when Material Girl lands a pathos-laden verse, there’s a real sense that he’s broken through his own hesitations, and inversely, there’s a rich, evasive subtext to even his most inscrutable passages of sound collage, as though they’re either indirectly articulating or actively avoiding statements the artist is unprepared to make in his own voice.
However, while this self-conscious convection between direct/indirect, candid/oblique, blah/bluh etc. is representative and important (!) re. what kind of a record i85mixx21-22
is, it ultimately does little justice to what makes it so remarkable. Every one of its misgivings and internal tensions is poised against a superficial aspect that offers - if that’s all you seek in it - very straightforward gratification. It sounds
bloody gorgeous. This is far too pleasant a record to be written off as a work of pure deconstruction or an artistic talking-point, as should be immediately apparent from “i85mixxalbumversion” (1)’s dazzling opening run. Practically every song here has enough instrumental flair that the album could have held its own rap-free: “i85mixxreprise” (12)’s soothing bossa nova counterpart to the opener’s momentous jungle is an ingenious lategame twist and much-needed comedown following the manic “i85mixxremix” (11). The nervous breakdown of a jazz instrumental that rounds off “I85mixxdub” (5) is straight-up savage, while “i85mixxlive” (7)’s translucent layering of ghostly voices, see-sawing childlike piano and stuttering swing beat amounts to the most evocative facsimile I’ve heard of a soul leaving a body since Bowie’s “Lazarus”. Don’t even get me started on that masterstroke of a closer - that one’s a journey of its own, a final, desperate level-up on all the album’s already vast ambitions that peaks in appropriately heart-on-sleeve form, tapering off into a bittersweet parable of misidentified genius and, finally, plain noise. How else?
These instrumentals are key to what makes the record great
, but their real magic is the foil they pose to Material Girl’s distance-erasing lyricism and rap. They’re ultimately just as intermittent and reticent to commit to any given style or motif as Material Girl’s own fragmented utterances, but they’re a good deal easier to get lost in. It’s no great leap to see them as two halves of the same expression; if Material Girl is vocally unconfident in explicating the full scope of his grief and/or artistic powers, then this music, equal parts sombre and electrifying in all its sprawling, indecisive maudlin glory, is an obvious substitute for everything he can’t frame in his own voice. It’s almost never enough to trot out that a record’s emotional journey counts as its own reward, but Material Girl paves his with an impeccably produced sample collage so sensitively gauged that the truth isn’t far off. His mercurial interchange of citations and interjections is at once averse to being absorbed in its entirety and thoroughly grounded in its moment-to-moment affect; the effect is similar to how the scene and characterisation in a decent Shakespeare production will transmit themselves so intuitively that no English-native audience will follow or even parse every uttered word. Likewise, Material Girl’s performance, sample choices and deceptive knack for aesthetic continuity vs. structural mish-mash carry themselves above the record’s individual stumbles and inscrutable idiosyncrasies. It finds a rich spread of voices to articulate a cocktail of personal and existential despairs that rarely, if ever receive such imaginative or colourful treatment: it’s beautiful and it messes me away every time, no matter where it finds me.