Friday, August 5, 2016

album review: 'encore' by dj snake

I've never been completely sure how I feel about DJ Snake. 

And if you've been following his seemingly meteoric rise to fame over the past three years, you'd understand why. As a producer, his synth tones and beats have the sort of aggression that can match the firepower of someone like Lil Jon but also have enough restraint to intensify the tension for more low-key singers. And while it can definitely take a while to get on-board with some of his more off-kilter melodic progressions, he does have a distinctive sound - probably one of the big reasons Lady Gaga tapped him around the turn of the decade to produce for Born This Way and ARTPOP. And considering how many bonafide hits he's had, I'm surprised it's taken him this long to make a full-length debut, even as an producer.

But on the other hand, there's a part of me that's not that surprised - DJ Snake has probably been making enough bank off of singles to not need to worry about albums, and when you combine that with the fact that his unique selection of tones can seem a tad limited when you explore his material at length, maybe he was concerned about wearing out his welcome. Hell, he's even calling his debut album Encore, maybe he's aware of his possible longevity. But that doesn't mean I wasn't curious, so I checked out Encore - how did it go?

Well, it's a weird case, that's for damn sure, and one for which I swear DJ Snake's approach feels almost bipolar. This is an album with two distinct styles, each having their own distinct strengths and weaknesses, and the way they're sequenced on this record doesn't so much show variety as a complete lack of cohesion. Now none of this means Encore is precisely bad - there are some screamingly bad moments but none that quite derail the project from having real quality or from the high points - but there was a part of me that was expecting DJ Snake to push harder or get weirder, and that doesn't really happen.

But before I get to those moments, we need to start with those two distinct styles, which breaks down fairly easily: the songs where DJ Snake exhibits entirely too much personality; and those where he shows off no personality whatsoever. And I know what you're thinking, I opened this review describing how DJ Snake had a distinctive production style, and yet there's almost half of the album where the beats and synth choices feel incredibly by the numbers. Take 'Sober', with the blurry piano tones and horn touches around the guitar groove - the track might have some atmosphere with JRY's vocals, but nowhere does it sound like something any other trap producer couldn't make. 'Talk' is a little better, mostly thanks to George Maple's breathy delivery and the balance between the warping vocal fragments and the pan flute, but the track honestly doesn't sound that far removed from your average Kygo production, and at least he will flip up his melody beyond the cadence! And then we get the trap productions on 'Oh Me Oh My' with Travi$ Scott and Quavo of Migos with newcomer G4SHI on the hook, or the ghostly symphonic vocals that open up the other G4SHI feature '4 Life' - these songs barely feel like DJ Snake productions, you could have told me Metro Boomin made these and I might not have - known the difference. And then we have 'The Half' with Jeremih and Young Thug - and yeah, with the vocal sampling around the hook it's got more of a DJ Snake feel, but that doesn't compensate for how terrible Jeremih's verse is, how he thinks people will call him 2Pac or how he treats girls the same way he treats his car, which feels like the opening to a Whose Line Is It Anyway sketch - and yet there's no humor here. It's a bad sign when Young Thug is probably the sole redeeming factor, but I'm also left wondering if you paired him with some more exotic production the way Jamie xx did with 'Good Times', you'd probably get something much better!

And the funny thing is that DJ Snake does have his moments where the production gets a little wilder or more kooky - and while I don't often mind his choice of cadence or melodies, his synth tones can leave a lot to be desired. I've mentioned on Billboard BREAKDOWN how shrill 'Middle' can feel, especially leading into the breakdown, but that's nothing compared to 'Sahara', a song that actually starts with some pretty great stormy atmospherics before the drop into this squonking synth that rapid approaches ear-bleeding territory that sounds like an elephant getting disemboweled! 'Pigalle' has something similar, as its drop breaks into huge blocks of chiptune that reminds me when my computer hits a BSOD as the beat contorts underneath it. And again, I don't mind glitchy, abrasive beats or melodies, but if your tone just blares across the mix without any sort of blending or adequate progression, it actively alienates me as a listener. For comparison, when Anna Meredith made 'The Vapours' earlier this year, she also had similar blaring tones but the entire song was a growth an buildup to the triumphant chord, which made the harsher textures easier to take, whereas DJ Snake builds to the drop for eight bars or so and right after goes back to the atmospherics - and again, the atmospheric pieces save these songs, but they also highlight how rigid and borderline formulaic so many of DJ Snake's compositions are. And again, that can work with the right tones: 'Ocho Cinco' pairs him up with Yellow Claw and even despite the well-blended chipmunk vocals the song goes absolutely nuts with a great drop and real galloping momentum with the sandy beat and shifting synth tones. I wanted to like 'Propaganda' for similar reasons which is going for this dystopian, hellish bombast... and then that drop with the fast-paced rattle and squonk that even with the thicker bass reminded me way too much of early Skrillex to really click for me. But going back to 'Pigalle', the bizarre thing is that the instrumental around the drop, with the male vocal sample and the synth tone it almost felt imported straight from mid-90s techno, and we later get another retro production on 'Future Pt. 2', that might not have many of DJ Snake's usual flourishes outside of the sampled vocal breakdown but easily has the most groove in the bassline and glossier low keys.

But as a whole... I'm conflicted by this record, and I still don't know what to think about DJ Snake. There's a part of me that wishes he'd get more aggressive, but he's got no problems with loudness or abrasion - if anything, I wish he got more flexible in his melodic progressions, not just taking a few notes and contorting them. And that's the moments where DJ Snake shows off his sound - when he's playing second fiddle to his guest stars, his production has a lot less personality. Say what you will about how airy and borderline insubstantial Kygo can be, at least he doesn't compromise that, or a sense of fun. With Encore... I found this record hard to enjoy outside of isolated moments, which means it's getting a very strong 5/10 from me. Again, take this with a grain of salt - I'm not a hardcore DJ Snake fan and you'll probably like this a lot more if you are... but I'm not sure this album captures him at his best.

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