What we have here is the promise of this decade’s Timbaland.
Natalie Shaw 2011
SBTRKT made his name hiding behind a mask, remixing the likes of M.I.A., Basement Jaxx and Modeselektor. And here, he’s kept the veneer while doing somewhat of a showy back-flip – by bringing in an A-grade line-up of guest vocalists, he’s given his own music the stage and produced a debut album almost unbelievably bursting with ground-zero moments, unexpected side-turns and slinky promises. This set packs the kind of hustle biologically required to (hopefully) scale the charts and explode into new places.
It’s a both timeless and timely album, for the mix of right-now production – a haughty brew of clean-but-intricate beats, squeaks and wobbles – with chart-ready choruses. On headphones, it’s fixated on the image of a desolate figure lugging their emotional haul through the dancefloor while the night goes on around them, free of fluff and full of power. Through the right PA, its mini-breakbeats fly across open space like strobe-lit ping-pong balls. Each trick is as impressive.
Sampha’s vocals are striking, frequently courting the edge of tears – especially on Hold On where he pleads, "You’re giving me the coldest stare / Like you don’t even know I’m here". And so it continues, with other such imagery, of "ghostly enemies" on Trials of the Past and breaking down the blockade of "Pharoah’s guards, Kings and Queens" on Pharoahs, featuring the blindingly impermeable vocals of Roses Gabor. On Right Thing to Do, Jessie Ware comes through even stronger than the twisted bass and thumping 808s, mournfully purring "Let me eat all these lies up / Let me hide, let me hide them". It’s simple heartbreak, unusually matched with such an upbeat arrangement.
But as the pace drops and the cycle restarts, sobriety creeps back in. This album is paced like a perfect DJ set – it reads the listener with incredible insight, combining the immediate and familiar with intense passages of warm-up, breaking to allow for moments of blank space and reflection. The mix of shiny vocals with tight, accelerated textures is steeped deep in a glorious combination of two-step, UK funky, dubstep, US RnB and Chicago house. Add that to the compendium of a killer pop sensibility, infectious bubbling rhythms, unbridled energy and astounding curation from the man in the mask, and what we have here is the promise of this decade’s Timbaland.