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Skrillex Flirts With Top 40 On His Occasionally Brilliant ‘Recess’

Skrillex / Photo by Loren Wohl
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Label: OWSLA/Big Beat/Atlantic

“Dance like it hurts to stand still,” sings Chance the Rapper on “Coast Is Clear,” the fifth track on Recess, Skrillex’s stealth-released debut album, and a song that is, hands down, the last thing you’d expect to hear on anything bearing Skrillex’s name. Not that the phrase itself is particularly surprising — in fact, it sums up Sonny Moore’s M.O. pretty well. And it’s not even weird that the tie-dye-wearing, tab-on-his-tongue-twisting Chicago rapper should show up here, given Skrillex’s fondness for unlikely collaborators and the fact that EDM-plus-rap is one of the dominant sounds of 2014.

No, what’s surprising is that it’s pop — not dubstep, not EDM, not (thank God) “complextro,” but full-on, baby-kissing, Top-40-gunning pop, the kind of song that could well get spun by wedding DJs years down the line. (Well, were it not for the persistent refrain, “Do you wanna fuck?”)

“Coast Is Clear” is one of several songs on Recess where Skrillex takes a hard left and abandons the jagged, overdriven style that has come to define him so far. That those are the best songs on the album is encouraging: They suggest that the 26-year-old producer has the chops to be the pop-cultural force his legions of fans are rooting for him to be. That they’re accompanied by so many others that affix the manic, fist-pumping perma-grin of post-rave music at its most cartoonish makes this the odd debut that feels more like a second or third album. Having grown up, as a solo artist, very much in public, the six-time Grammy winner is at a crossroads, lingering between the security of a bankable format he popularized and the uncharted terrain of the pop savant.

“Stranger” exemplifies this ambivalence. At its core, it’s essentially a Claude VonStroke track; the loping, 808-inspired bass line and squealing portamento lead are straight out of the Dirtybird playbook. Sam Dew’s vocals are modeled upon Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs’ androgynized coo, and a fluttering spring-reverb effect on the voice hints at Caribou. It’s entertaining enough that Skrillex would even be playing off these influences (plus the Avalanches and even Olof Dreijer’s Oni Ayhun project, echoes of which are audible if you’re in a dots-connecting mood); more importantly, he nails it. The squeals may get a little piercing, and the half-time trap breakdown may catch you off guard, but it’s hard to deny that he’s created something that brings together multiple worlds in a way few other artists could.

If only every song on Recess aspired to those great heights of WTF-ness. Alas, they do not. The album opens with “All Is Fair in Love and Brostep,” a pro-forma, laser-chainsaw dubstep banger accompanied by one of those hackneyed ’50s sci-fi voices talking about spaceships and is unredeemable even by the presence of the Ragga Twins, a pair of jungle MCs with unassailable credentials (hell, one of them was affiliated with Casio-dub pioneers UNITY sound system). Elsewhere, “Recess” takes the percussive melodies of EDM 2014 (see Martin Garrix’s “Animals” and dozens of other songs employing the same woodblocks-run-through-concussion-grenade-reverb shtick) and slows them to moombahton’s Weeble-Wobble gait while Fatman Scoop plays hype-man and Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos sings through what sounds like a toaster.

Of the album’s jump-up tunes, “Dirty Vibe” is the best. Diplo had a hand in it, and you can tell. A trunk-rattling fusion of New Orleans bounce and drum’n’bass, it sounds a lot like “Express Yourself 2.0,” with K-pop stars CL (from 2NE1) and G-Dragon (of Big Bang) delivering uncanny renditions of American rap cadences, and it’s got some of the most spine-tingling vocal processing this side of the Knife’s Silent Shout.

Recess‘ creative free-for-all — recorded in studios around the world, it features co-producers or guest vocalists on all but three songs, and one of those is a remix of Niki & the Dove’s “DJ Ease My Mind” — suggests that Skrillex is less interested in defining his own sound than in being a kind of multi-tasking A&R instigator/ringleader, much like Diplo himself (or M.I.A., or Kanye). This is a good approach for him: He’s curious, with sharp ears and an open mind. But it’s nevertheless striking how often the album mimics other artists and songs, suggesting that he hasn’t yet figured out how to translate his affinities into a fusion that sounds truly new. “Dirty Vibe” borrows its steel-pan-rave-stab melody from TNGHT’s “Bugg’n,” while the Ragga Twins-assisted “Ragga Bomb” sounds like a rave-ready, Disney-money version of the Bug’s 2003 song “Killer.”

That’s not necessarily an accusation; dance music, like reggae itself, has always been largely about pilfering ideas and repurposing them for new contexts. That’s how traditions get built and identities are forged. The most intriguing example of this synthesis is “Fuck That,” essentially a 2014 update of the kind of dubstep that Loefah was making back in 2007. Just as when Skrillex shouted out Croydon’s dubstep pioneers in his 2012 Grammys acceptance speech, it’s both a tribute and an attempt to claim the kind of “authentic,” underground-approved cred that has largely eluded him. This wobbling between attempts to impress the dance music cognoscenti and to make songs as purely delightful as “Coast Is Clear” defines Recess, and occasionally bogs it down.

Last year’s single “Leaving” drew heavily upon the clattery percussion and ethereal affect of Burial’s singular style of bass music, and Recess closer “Fire Away” covers markedly similar ground, with a dusky kalimba-and-wet-cardboard groove that traces directly back to Burial, right down to the wash of white noise that opens the song. It’s more than mere imitation; given the way he makes ribbons out of the singer Kid Harpoon’s voice, there’s plenty of Skrillex’s own sonic DNA here. But on a song that’s clearly designed to remind us that he’s as capable of making dulcet chillout tracks as he his rough-and-ready festival destroyers, it’s curious that he should follow so closely in the footsteps of another artist — and, what’s more, down a path he’s traveled before.

Contrast that to the genuinely out-of-left-field pleasure of Recess‘ “Doompy Poomp,” a lurching, gelatinous, boom-bap-meets-Raymond-Scott take on beat music. It’s cartoonish in the best way, and it caters to no particular interest group within dance music’s fractious population; it’s just Skrillex being his own weird self, and it’s representative of the best moments on Recess — neither thrashing about nor standing still.