Hip-hop has fallen from its past glory as a force of cultural innovation. Everyone from multinational corporations and European DJs used to take stylistic cues from trendsetting rap producers and MCs with elaborate, self-written mythologies and larger-than-life personalities. These days, it seems that this influence is turning itself inside-out; modern rappers derive their production style from European DJs, and most big-budget advertisers are more likely to appropriate vintage or indie fetishes than rap’s current fascination with disposable mixtapes and swag. And as the old force of innovation collapses on itself, one could be forgiven for thinking that intersections of styles are themselves the stage on which advertisers and would-be celebrities perform other dramas — dramas that have more to do with ambition than relationships, more to do with commerce than culture.
One of the only places where hip-hop is sowing any seeds of vitality or influence is in Southern California, where a vibrant scene is emerging, full of one-man beat factories who share a love of compressors, an affinity for artificial, quixotic soundscapes, and a nearly universal aversion to sterile, quantized drum patterns. Will Wiesenfeld’s debut as Baths, Cerulean, isn’t a hip-hop record, despite the fact that it was released on anticon. and uses its drums like weapons; but it is evidence of hip-hop’s continuing influence in contemporary creative music, a fresh permutation in a new context.
It’s tempting to lump Baths in with every other bedroom producer with a self-effacing falsetto and a well-developed sense of atmosphere, but Cerulean’s sonics hit a little too hard to blend in with the crowd. While acts like Toro Y Moi or Washed Out elide the insistent demands of the present by heightening a sense of nostalgia, enveloping the listener in aural amniotic fluid, Cerulean’s approach is more immediate; Wiesenfeld draws strength from songwriting and arranging technique in ways that aren’t characteristic of his contemporaries. “♥” opens with a minimalistic solo piano figure, its elegant vocal melody floating atop an almost neoclassical harmonic framework. “You’re My Excuse to Travel” builds walls of layered vocal lines that are all the more attractive for their ability to remain indistinct, sitting low in the mix against the beat and the chords. And while the songwriting is strong enough to carry itself — much like Wiesenfeld’s voice — Cerulean often goes without it, with busy, dynamic instrumental tracks like album standout “Maximalist,” where texture and sonic effects supplant melody and song form as selling points.
As detailed and lively as Wiesenfeld’s instrumentals are, the lyric-less combo of “Animals” and “Rafting Starlit Everglades” are notable mostly as the lone weak stretch on a consistently strong album. “Rain Smell,” “Departure,” and “Plea” reveal this project’s strength to lie beyond its dense and fully realized aesthetic, beyond its muscular, autonomous beats and heavily refracted and overexposed piano and guitar textures. This music is deeply atmospheric, but not at all detached. Bare earnestness reaches out from “Plea,” as Wiesenfeld sings, “This is a dark world and I’ve lost focus/ Please tell me you need me,” with this “tell me you need me” resurfacing throughout the song, more like a poetic sigh than a conventional refrain. It’s as if he’s trying to escape being trapped in himself, but the music isn’t the escape he’s looking for, as attractive as it is. This isn’t escapism; it’s love. For once, the beauty of pop isn’t a screen for a hubristic myth of celebrity. For once, the strength of beat music doesn’t encourage the listener to turn away from the world around him and the people in it. As “Departure” fades into silence, I’m convinced that, as valuable as Cerulean is as an intersection of styles and techniques, the intersection isn’t a mere stage, and it isn’t the end of the road.