- SPIN Rating:7 of 10
Label: Mad Decent/Downtown
Whither dubstep? As the amorphous, infectious, oft-maligned genre continues to mutate, this question has become deeply embedded in the discourse around it. Dubstep fuels the schism between British traditionalists and North American upstarts. It lubricates hand-wringing over bone-headed "brostep" and airy "bass music" alike. And it's at the heart of every heated YouTube debate over the legitimacy of Skrillex (who, for the record, is not really dubstep, but you get the point). The roots of the genre lie within electronic music's futurist faction, but these days it's the future of the genre itself that obsesses fans and detractors alike. Arguments about dubstep’s destiny have become as crucial to the scene as drops and wobble.
Every genre has its partisans, but this one's sub-soldiers might be the most pessimistic of them all: Apocalypse is always around the corner, the scene is eternally going to hell in a handbasket, and won't somebody please think of the children? So Rusko's sophomore LP answers with a rhetorical question of its own: Can't we all just get along? Bringing together roots-oriented dub reggae, face-melting dubstep, and a generous helping of the garish electro-trance-pop amalgam that defines EDM's commercial mainstream, Songs tries to offer something for everyone without losing grasp of the fundamentals. It's a roots record with ambitions that reach all the way to pop music's fluorescent forest canopy; and for listeners who don't mind their tubers slathered with neon-colored cheese, it can be a wildly entertaining listen.
Rusko — a.k.a., 27-year-old Christopher Mercer, born in Leeds but now based in Los Angeles — knows a thing or two about stirring up controversy. He was once considered dubstep's enfant terrible thanks to songs like "Cockney Thug," with its brutal bass line and gratuitous profanity. But by the time he released his debut album, 2010's O.M.G.!, he’d largely ceded the brostep mantle to bass manglers like 12th Planet and Doctor P, as well as cocky sociopaths like Borgore. "Brostep is sort of my fault, but now I'm starting to hate it," Mercer admitted in a 2010 interview with BBC 1Xtra. "A lot of dubstep fans just come because they want to hear the most disgusting, hard, dirty, distorted music possible, and that's not what it's about."
To underscore his point, O.M.G.! balanced mean-spirited moshers like "Woo Boost" with a mixture of dub reggae, disco house, G-funk, breakbeat hardcore, and U.K. garage. It was a mixed bag, but it signaled Mercer's desire to look beyond the bangers that helped make his name. And with "Hold On," he proved his ability to write a crowd-pleasing anthem that could hold its own against dubstep's biggest crossover hits.
On Songs, Mercer dedicates himself to reproducing such highs as often as possible. "Somebody to Love," the album's first single, harnesses rave-y breakbeats and pianos to glowering dubstep rhythms, topped off with a killer vocal hook; it confirms his skill at creating thoroughly modern tracks that you could swear you've known your entire life (or at least since 1992). "Pressure" updates skipping 2-step garage with hyper-soul synth work, borrows phrasing from Mylo's "Drop the Pressure," and ends up sounding like the Basement Jaxx of your wildest dreams. And the irresistible "Whistle Crew," which reprises the pistoning pianos of "Somebody to Love," re-unites lithe, jump-up dubstep with its ancestor breakbeat hardcore, deploying time-stretched vocals and agitated MC chatter ("Whistles and horns!").
Wisely, Rusko doesn't try to keep up that pace for the entire album, often falling back on reggae as a combination cushion and palate-cleanser. "Skanker" seesaws between skunked-out dub and lacerating dubstep, while "Love No More" and "Mek More Green" are straight-up roots tributes, in spite of the punch and polish of the digital production. The lyrics are a little corny, but the homage seems genuine. (The album's spoken-word introduction invokes King Tubby, and Mercer has often cited Leeds' sound systems as an inspiration.) You're probably not going to delete any Studio One records from your iPod to make room for Rusko's reggae studies, but they work in the context of the album, adding depth and smoothing out the pacing as the record zig-zags from style to style.
Elsewhere, Songs maintains the hyphenated feel of Rusko's debut. "Be Free" is half incendiary dancehall and half carnival dubstep; "Asda Car Park" and "Opium" are both retellings of Beauty and the Beast, marrying dubstep at its most grotesque with swirling, billowing, lighters-in-the-air trance. In fact, there's a lot of trance on the album. With its super-saw stabs, tremulous diva vocals, and four-to-the-flour pump, "Thunder" wouldn't sound out of place on a Paul van Dyk record, while the soaring vocals and keys of "M357" sound more like Above & Beyond.
So where exactly is dubstep going? For Rusko, a second-waver who quit foggy London for the sunnier climes of the world's entertainment capital, the genre will go virtually anywhere he can push it. One of the album's most audacious tracks, "Dirty Sexy," essentially reimagines dubstep as high-gloss R&B in the vein of The-Dream. (As a gateway drug, it's pretty potent: It's the kind of tune you could imagine Parks & Recreation's Tom Haverford getting really excited about.)
If Songs' genre grafts are occasionally ungainly, and if the album sometimes tilts too far towards the pyrotechnic excesses of main-stage EDM, that probably has a lot to do with the fact that Mercer recorded the album in a concentrated, seven-week stretch following 10 months of shows. While he was on tour, he has said, he didn't make a single beat. When he finally got back to the studio, all that hard-won road knowledge came pouring out. As such, this feels not just like the portrait of a maturing artist, but also like a snapshot of the global dance-music scene in macro.
At festivals like the ones Rusko has been playing, trance intermingles with dubstep, electro-house with drum and bass, dance pop with progressive. Hits ricochet from stage to stage, remixed to the specifications of each semi-discrete market segment. And DJs are forced to learn a whole new set of skills: It's no longer enough to minister to the faithful; now you're preaching to the skeptical, winning over the ears and minds of kids who may have come to the rave just to hear Deadmau5 or David Guetta.
For the album's full 48 minutes, Rusko proves himself to be a clever, compelling ringmaster: He draws you to his stage and keeps you there, no matter the bleed-through from adjacent tents. In fact, the bleed-through is half the fun. This isn't just what dubstep feels like right now; this is the state of dance music writ large, from its most exhilarating to its most ridiculous. Where next?