“A landscape roofed over and surrounded by glass: the tropics in confinement, miniaturized, a restricted area within the city of stone, but with genuine palm trees and a steamy warmth. Full of that exoticism of the interior…An exoticism which is painful because it became quite unattainable through being brought too close to us. But this closeness has a magic power.”
– Theodor Adorno, 1930
The cover art for Your Charizmatic Self is an imagined environment in which a complicated music production setup is illuminated almost solely by a sprawling window behind it, beyond which a contained group of overgrown plants (described as “corporate” in the press release) reach upwards toward an unseen sky. The triangular centerpiece of an empty stool and two large speakers engage in a kind of beckoning to the viewer to come closer. It’s easy to associate this environment with the titles of tracks 3 and 5, “Greenhouse (Day)” and “Greenhouse (Night),” which respectively seem to be exploring different feelings (as “Day” presents short variations on a simple melody) and then making a decision (with the confident and contemplative mood of “Night”). Second single “Howard” begins with organic, murky synths and atonal bass, but none of the spacious environments Bok Bok crafts on this release stick around long; a phone-ring synth ushers in a sound of a hyperreal proximity, but the ring is later heard again in the distance, as if it had been a point in space all along. In a sense, then, Your Charizmatic Self is about the realization of a closeness and an understanding. The whimsy of “Howard” is betrayed as false by its ominous low end, as the theme of coming into one’s own is characterized as mysterious, complicated, even eerie. Bok Bok is hearing and working with R&B long after the music’s optimism has become obscure.
“Very brief musical passages quoted out of context often seem banal, particularly in the case of older vocal music to which monothematicism is an unknown concept… But in the banality of the singular the mythical illusion of surface totalities stand revealed: it is of these that blind nature gains control.”
– Theodor Adorno, 1932
On first single “Melba’s Call,” Kelela (an accomplished Night Slugs/Fade to Mind crew member in her own right) competes with a torrent of vocal samples shooting up and building off of one another like fauna. Stab-like synths give her little melodic space upon which to latch, so she ends up mimicking the samples’ fragmented quality. Describing the writing method for her 2013 mixtape CUT 4 ME, Kelela spoke of scat-like vocal improvisation over future bass beats that eventually materialized as lyrics, with or without her consciousness that a song was coming into form around a particular subject. That method yielded cryptic, improvised-seeming hooks there just as it does here, but the play between lyrics and production never seems thoughtless.
“Why you actin’ so cold? Suddenly…”
“To find a real love, you gotta get bodied.”
The casually romantic sentiment doesn’t seem to fit in between blocks of empty space and incomplete melody.
Meanwhile, on the more sample-heavy numbers, Bok Bok creates an odd and undulating master-slave dynamic by which “newer,” crisper sounds and methods seem to exert mastery over small R&B quotations. Snarling samples and staccato, disco-like synths appear on “Da Foxtrot,” while bass dictates macro-level change “beneath” the less significant “surface-level” changes. A liberating message is paired with an imperative tone on “Funkiest (Be Yourself),” which prominently features a clap-heavy 909 ghetto house beat and a single, isolated vocal sample.
In promoting Your Charizmatic Self, the label has highlighted the importance of identity, but establishing theme proves to be challenging in Bok Bok’s language of beats, noise, and space. Intrinsic to the presentation of certain sounds on these tracks is the notion that they are heard incompletely or out of context, so what does that mean in terms of the cogito penetrated by the anonymous, hushed voice at 3:45 of “Funkiest (Be Yourself)?”
Cartesian meditations aside, Your Charizmatic Self is the most unusual and truly futuristic-sounding Night Slugs release since Jam City’s 2012 album, Classical Curves, largely interpreted as conceptual in aim (by some, to a fault). With the Club Constructions Community “manifesto” and series of EPs, Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990 seemed to be making a promise regarding the label’s aesthetic uniformity in an outspokenly “smart” way. This EP suggests something oddly and reassuringly different with its genuine creativity and quiet intelligence.