Tuesday, May 22, 2018

album review: 'light of mine' by KYLE

I'll admit to being a little surprised this record is on my schedule.

Actually, let me back up a bit, I'm surprised this record garnered as much attention as it did on my schedule given that it seems like it's dropping a good year later than I expected. Don't get me wrong, I really liked 'iSpy' when it first came out, and if it hadn't been for Lil Yachty it probably would have had a shot for my year-end list of hits in 2017, or at least the Honourable Mentions. And it was primarily because of KYLE - I liked him as a presence in hip-hop and R&B, almost a little reminiscent of Chance The Rapper but with more of an R&B angle and an oddly childlike optimism, which tended to take the edge of the sleazier parts of songs like 'iSpy'. 

Now granted, 'iSpy' was really all I was familiar with from him, but I was a little surprised it took this long to get a major label full-length follow-up, given that his last mixtape with real hype dropped in 2015 and you'd think he'd be trying to ride the early wave with an EP or an tape or something early last year - don't get wrong, he had two tapes, but it didn't seem like anyone really cared as much. Instead, it looks like KYLE redoubled his focus to taking his time and pulling together a debut with features spanning from 2 Chainz to Khalid, from Alessia Cara to Kehlani. And hell, with as many votes as this was getting, I had some hopes the extra time had been worth it, so what did we get with Light Of Mine?

Okay, here's the thing: in a funny way this project should be both better and worse than it is, and the easy way to evaluate which side of that divide you sit on can be determined just by me describing the album. So if I say, 'this is a project narrated by Lil Yachty as Lil Boat where KYLE learns to how to relax and not be so hard on himself over waves of pop-rap autotune and chiptune production', I think you'll have an idea of your opinion on it really quickly. And yet I think from both sides you'd wind up surprised, because while the concept is more introspective and honest than you might expect, it's also lightweight and shallow in a way you can't quite get around, and if you think the production is just too damn kitschy and overexposed to save it... well, you'd be wrong there too, as it's just intimate and bubbly enough to be pretty likable. And as such I kind of fall in the middle of all of it - it's a decent, generally enjoyable project that sticks more of the ambitions than you'd expect, but is also pretty damn insubstantial and has many of the flaws you'd expect of this kind of debut too.

And we really have to start with KYLE... which is tough, because he's a tough presence to define. My initial comparison of Chance The Rapper in how he bends melodic flows would make sense... except he's a far more basic and laid-back rapper... although good enough that when Lil Yachty drops his verse for the tacked on 'iSpy', he's handily shown up. But KYLE is also a singer, so while that combination might put you in mind of someone like D.R.A.M. - especially when you factor in the generally upbeat demeanor - KYLE just isn't a singer of the same caliber or presence - he's way too chipper to be compared to Drake or Khalid but he doesn't really fit opposite our current crop of pop artists, the autotune is too thick and his personality is way looser and more lackadaisical. And let me stress, that's a boon for him - the fact that he genuinely seems to be having fun behind the microphone is a huge asset, and he's capable of selling more sad or melancholic moments. The comparison I kept returning to, believe or not, is Owl City - not really in vocal timbre or subject matter directly, but a similar adolescent innocence in his delivery that lets him chuckle or crack goofy jokes or make obvious pop culture references, and while there is some angst in his content, the stakes feel a lot lower than your average hip-hop or R&B record.

Granted, this can be a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to the content directly - and let's make this abundantly clear, while he does have a lot of likable charisma and flair, KYLE is not exactly a great MC. His rhymes tend to connect, but beyond basics of structure the storytelling is pretty thin - Lil Yachty acting less of a conscience and more of an enabler telling KYLE to relax, loosen up, not be so hard on himself, and in general enjoy more of his current success... which does lead to the slightly weird dynamic where we're expected to feel sorry for KYLE that his success doesn't make him happy or give him any sense of self-actualization, but again, the framing is lightweight and adolescent enough to mostly excuse it... mostly. I won't deny that he and Alessia Cara have some youthful chemistry on 'Babies', but it almost leans a little too hard into excusing any sense of responsibility because they're young, which is a similar brand of subtext that creeps into a lot of KYLE's songs about women. 'OpenDoors' shows him at least self-aware about how much of a bad boyfriend he is with both clinginess and general disinterest in her life in comparison with himself, but the framing almost seems dejected that he has to treat her well in this relationship. And it's a similar self-focus that pervades the breakup of 'iMissMe' with Khalid - again, I appreciate the acknowledgement that relationships can suck away that greater sense of self, but to make that the focal point of the breakup and continuously avoid any responsibility thanks to the framing can rub me the wrong way. And then there's the storytelling we do get on 'Rodeo' and 'It's Yours', the first telling the story of a girl who moves to L.A. and who falls for KYLE because he can provide for her, the second being how he lost his virginity... when he then follows with a goofy skit thanking everything and everyone that helped him get there and saying it's all about persistence and that if she doesn't give you her number, google map her house! And yes, I get that the framing is intended to be adolescent, but it's also not challenging some really undercooked and occasionally questionable self-interest that could really backfire when exposed to reality.

But hey, it's not all that bad: I do like how he and Kehlani have some chemistry in both calling out a girl who's playing games with them, and it's got the sort of cool veneer that they both probably could walk away... but what really saves most of this record is the production. And what caught me off-guard was that while we get a fair few overweight trap bangers like 'iSpy' or the shallow flexing of 'Games' and 'Ikuyo', the choice of synthesizers is often more glitchy, burbling, and techicolour, with songs like 'Games' being borderline chiptune or 'Ups & Downs' bringing a jittery, strikingly neon whir, which would then fade into the twinkling but oddly flat synths with thicker multi-tracking that characterize 'Coming, Going?'... and when that breaks into the more conventional trap percussion with similar keyboards, it has the fragmented feel of synthpop mashed into modern pop trap with a somewhat slapdash but mostly endearing charm. That certainly comes to the forefront when you consider the thicker gurgle of the synth groove beneath the textured cymbals on 'Babies' or the watery gloss of 'iMissMe', or even the super jaunty pianos driving 'PlayWithMe'. And that's before you get more defined west coast jams like the thicker autotune touching the hook of 'OpenDoors' against the firmer bass and more interesting drumline, or the piano anchoring the textured bassy groove of 'Rodeo' and 'It's Yours' that actually has some sensuous presence that I could imagine Anderson .Paak flowing against. Hell, that's probably one of the most apt comparisons: not as organic as him or Chance, relying less on samples of soul and old-school hip-hop and more on accessible synthpop or burbling, Lil Yachty-esque trap. It's certainly a more youthful sonic foundation, and while I might personally prefer the more organic grooves, a lot of KYLE's production does enhance the framing of his lightweight framing of his content. Hell, the only time it doesn't really work is the fragmented percussion of 'ShipTrip' where it almost seems like he's off the beat, but even then it seems to stabilize by the end, and the more personal insecurities in the content come close to saving the song.

But as a whole... again, I find myself wanting to like this both more and less than I do. I find KYLE a really endearing presence and I'd argue he makes more use of this style of production than Lil Yachty has with similar tones. And while I wouldn't quite say it gets all the way there - the project definitely runs long, the immaturity can start to test my patience, some of the shrill chipmunk-esque tones against the heavier trap beats can get annoying, and I keep waiting for KYLE to really take more of a chance with that sincere honesty he brings to the table - it's a debut that shows some promise. For me, it's a solid 6/10 and a recommendation, probably more for the younger kids who'll appreciate this a lot more. But otherwise... hell, I can see KYLE building some real success with this, I'd say check it out.

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