P.S. I Love You
Reviewed by Aaron Shuman
Thursday, July 19 2001, 4:52 PM
On this joint, Kid 606 sets out for the open plains of Europe, where Mille-Plateaux puts its continental philosophy behind his efforts to make music from the materials others leave behind. More than any electronic artist I've heard, the Kid makes musical use of the extended control technology offers artists over the production of sound. The result on P.S. is dance music that inverts its own values: silence becomes deafening and percussive; the ring of a note is louder than the tone at its center; and the music your mind plays, in the silence the Kid allows into his mix, takes precedence over his notes.
Translate this into painting's classic optical illusion, and the Kid's notes are black squares; silence, the white grid that interlaces them; and our music--the music we hear, then process into booty shakes and boot stomps--is the grey where these elements meet. (This remains true, even if the movements its listeners envision remain headborne, locked in the corpuses of those who won't let their backbones slide.) At his most radical, the Kid marginalizes sound itself, pushing it to the periphery, decentering the DJ from the role of father of the house, while enlarging the space for self-realization on the dance floor. His strategies of communication--inviting listeners to hear what isn't said, to listen for accents that shift the weight of words, and selves that scan into music--are essential tools to survive the reign of the national security state. This is music that encourages and rewards deep listening.
P.S. I Love You's careful whispers will surprise those who know the Kid from Attitude, last year's exploration of same by fucking with the vocals from N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, or Down with the Scene, last year's long player which rejected the whole of laptop rock by chopping it up at hyperactively amped speed and cramming it down your earholes, allowing you no choice but to regurgitate the mass clogging your thought canals. Kid 606 wants you to move somethin', if what or where is not exactly clear. Whether his new mellow state of mind is the result of maturity, Euro-marketing, or a desire to be more a lover, not a fighter, there's no question he's added musical styles to his palette.
After a short piece to introduce one of his primary techniques--the skip--this party gets started with --Where We Left Off.-- What's immediately apparent is the importance of space and breath to the music: the Kid simply allows more room between notes for bodies to flow. Breaking music down to its binary elements--sound and silence--the Kid builds lines from these units as carefully as Miles used to.
On --Where We Left Off,-- the Kid explores the principle that silence can pack as much wallop in a bassline as the note. The bass drum is muted, a sonic approximation of what it might feel like through bodies in a club. After a minute of holding the beat steady, the bass jumps ahead, becoming the pivot that kicks the song into new territory. As trebles rise in pitch, the bottom seems to drop out, creating room for rhythms to proliferate and establish themselves. The fun comes when the lines begin to merge, keeping essential parts of each other's time, until the Kid can hop among them, determining which you hear in notes, which you feel in silence. Follow the bass through the ionizing cloud of rhythms at the song's center, and you feel it until it returns as tinny treble on the backside. But unlike much electronic music, the Kid obliterates basslines as often as he employs them, which means there's no reason you have to follow. Once the bass walks you into the song's garden of delights on --Where We Left Off,-- every part can hold the beat at any one time, passed like a mike around an endless cipher. The 360 degrees of sound are important to Kid 606, who loves to switch between speakers: unlike the comets and pulsars of classic electro, the Kid's really move from one direction to another, streaking across the sonic horizon.
The Kid further explores the loops and omni-directionality of sound on --Now I Want to Be a Cowboy.-- The song opens and closes with the Kid a one-man gong ensemble, building lines from single tones that sound and ring in the space around others. Over the seven-minute journey, these stars twinkle in our sky, as a clippity-clop beat carries us into the song, the bass arching like ground rolling beneath us, gently reminding us it's there. Add smears of feedback to cloud the sky, electricity to crackle and hum like a high-tension wire, and the creation of soundscape is complete.
As the beat morphs through the lexicon of hip-hop--beatboxing, jeep-rattling bass, skratches--into percussive instruments more ancient and irreducible, it's tempting to view this as commentary on the controversy that's attended the Kid's frequent invocations of race in his work. From early --Wigga, please!-- productions, through --Luke Vibert Can Kiss My Indie-Punk Whiteboy Ass--'s refrain --I'm black, y'all/ And I'm black, y'all/ And I'm blacker than black/ And I'm black y'all-- (on the same album that declared (truthfully) --It'll Take Millions in Plastic Surgery to Make Me Black--), the controversy peaked when the Kid fucked with the wrong nigga to fuck wit on Attitude. Just as critical opinion of the N.W.A. album hinges on whether you believe the Kid got off (and over) on it, or set out to slay the nigga at the heart of commercial hip-hop, opinion of the Kid personally seems to depend on how interested you are in a self-identified white boy named Miguel proclaiming his blackness.
On --Now I Want to Be a Cowboy,-- it's as if the Kid journeys to the heart of his musical darkness, to locate the ghosts in his machine and the spirits that animate his music, giving props--proper respect due originals, and props for listeners to hold onto--while challenging the expectation that he should. Declaring himself a member of the Hip-Hop Nation, the Kid asks how he got to be the cowboy in a field he knows, and what basis people have to declare themselves Indians. More significantly, he seems to question the motives of those who would divide the landscape and settle it into sides. With a racial politics located somewhere between facile expressions of --We're All in the Same Gang-- and --Racemixing Is Cool,-- and a profound desire to destroy concepts of race by blowing them up into great poppable ballons, the Kid examines his ambivalent, yearning relationship to hip-hop, thug life as a Western export alongside John Wayne.
But tracks like --Twirl-- warn against this method of analysis: that songs should be decodable by their sources and lyrical content, or that the value of a song lies in its reducibility to a meaning. --Twirl-- is one of two songs that turn guitar samples into meditations on global identity. (--Strum-- is the other.) On --Twirl,-- a splash of classical guitar pools through retarding time into cocktail piano. The Kid cuts in a flamenco sample, which sounds similar enough to be confused for an accelerated version of the classical, while electronics mark the beat in castanet time. Stretching the guitar into a membrane wide enough to span the roles it plays in different ensembles, the Kid questions the meanings we assign to music, when the same sample, through the magic of processing, can become every instrument and play every part in a song.
If P.S. I Love You has one thing in common with its predecessors, it's an antagonism to the process by which we assign values to music, and by extension, to life. A common target of the Kid's merry prankstering is the cults of hero worship and microclimates that form around music, feeding off the creativity collected there but rarely nourishing it, turning individual techniques into genreic laws and biblical proscriptions.
This presents a challenge to music critics and fans, because it seems to require an expert knowledge of the music and the composition of a song, which short of being the musician oneself, is nearly impossible to attain. The alternative is a new humility on the part of critics and fans, that acknowledges no one has the final word on a song, approaches music as recombinant strands of data with meanings as readable as hog guts, and values the creation of music over than the process of deciphering it. If Kid 606 is more content to phreak the edges of scene politics than to cut the crap, drop the scene, and set out for new frontiers, that's both understandable, given his cherubic youth, and the fuel for his accelerated development. Providing deconstruction you can dance to (which ought to be a standard of music writing as well), P.S. I Love You is a love letter to the world of music and its simultaneous negation.
P.S. I Love You is available from Mille Plateaux.