For those who have followed the inscrutable trajectory of the duo known as Hype Williams since their early releases on De Stijl, it may be tempting to view Black Is Beautiful as a breakthrough of some sort. For the first time, the album bears the names Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland rather than Hype Williams, presumably a preemptive strategy to avoid litigation by the still very much in demand hip-hop video director. The album also carries the imprimatur of Hyperdub, the London label responsible for breaking highly-acclaimed electronic acts Burial and Zomby. Unlike past releases with po-mo trash culture titles like Kelly Price W8 Gain Vol. II (there was no volume one), the new album title is a famous slogan of the Black Consciousness Movement, popularized to counter internalized racism and hegemonic (white) standards of beauty. The oft reticent duo even granted a rare interview to The Guardian in which they seem to back away ever so slightly from the cagey fictions spun in their press releases. Yes, one could be forgiven for thinking of this album as an unambiguous step out of the opium fog of mystification that previously enveloped the duo and their weird, post-internet brand of indeterminate drift. But there are a few problems with that narrative.
For one, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland aren’t real names. In fact, Hype Williams is a more honest name; no one is going to mistake the duo for a famous video director. Blunt and Copeland, on the other hand, is a double deception. For another, the album cover is a rather obvious appropriation of the iconic Ebony magazine logo. For a group that is only half black and seems largely uninterested in making any clear, declarative statements about race with its music, Black Is Beautiful begins to seem like a curiously ersatz title, a radical motto emptied of revolutionary content, reduced to the same meaningless cultural void as the duo’s (sorta) debut Find Out What Happens When People Stop Being Polite, And Start Gettin’ Reel. As on past outings, Blunt and Copeland get esoteric with song titles, naming the opening track (“Venice Dreamway”) and leaving the other 14 untitled. As always, the duo excels at setting out a trail of breadcrumbs that leads nowhere. But the best evidence of Hype’s recalcitrance, their refusal to go any way towards the demystification of their project, is the music itself.
Black Is Beautiful is a series of beguiling paradoxes, directionless improvs that are not directionless and could not possibly have been improvised. A meditation on race that is neither meditative nor about race. It is the most definitive statement by the duo, but it is an album that by its very nature seems to mock the idea of definitive statements. Taken together, the strategies employed by Blunt and Copeland could be termed occultation, the process of “making hidden,” the willful foreclosure of meaning and intent. This strategy is neatly demonstrated by recent live shows by the duo, in which they appear hidden behind a curtain or completely cloaked in fog. This isn’t merely restraint or a vulgar attempt at myth-making, but rather a conceptual locus. The opposite of Hype is secrecy, but they are two sides of the same coin. Blunt and Copeland reveal everything other than anything one would need to complete the puzzle. You can’t even be sure there is a puzzle. In an age of internet oversharing and information binges, this is one of the only logical strategies available. Musically, they proffer hauntingly beautiful melodies, moments that beg to be fleshed out, extended, given structure. However, it becomes clear that these moments would lose their intrigue if they were massaged and worked into fully-fledged pop songs. The spell would be broken.
The Hype Williams spell is not merely the product of patina, the analog hum of a dusty Fostex 4-track, the drone of a cheap keyboard drifting out of tune. These have become familiar elements in indie/underground music these days and are insufficient to explain the alchemy at work here. Key to Blunt and Copeland’s occulting process is a refractory approach to genre. “Venice Dreamway” opens with a frenetic live drum improvisation, which would seem to signal a transition toward organic instrumentation, the incorporation of jazz elements, which is a familiar trajectory (see Mouse On Mars, Flying Lotus, etc.). This turns out to be a red herring, however, and subsequent tracks return to the standard arsenal of drum machines, samples, and synths. “12” is a nod in the direction of juke/footwork, but Copeland’s weird vocal floats unnaturally over the rhythm and cancels out any chance of dancing utility. “5” sounds like a demo tape of Estonia’s entry for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest. “9” is the album’s centerpiece in many respects, an abstracted, desolated iteration of UK hip-hop that opens with the pitched-down mantra “Never look back,” then proceeds to ignore its own advice, transforming into an instantly nostalgic synthpop number. “10” is an unrehearsed, one-take dub jam, complete with sirens, barely-controlled squalls of feedback, and shout-outs to Jah. “2” is a fairly straightforward cover of a ridiculously obscure vanity-press R&B ballad. It all adds up to everything and nothing. No matter how many hyphens and modifiers you use, it is impossible to sum up the stylistic approach of Blunt and Copeland, and yet the album is not “eclectic” and nothing sounds incongruous.
The album is marked by repetition and self-appropriation. “3,” “7,” and “14” are all versions of the same dissonant, aimless instrumental. “9” is a partial recapitulation of the untitled second track on last year’s S.E.A.L. III EP, just as elements from Dean Blunt’s strange “mixtape” The Narcissist II reappear on this album, notably the opening drone on “Venice Dreamway.” Repeating, recycling, recontextualizing, appropriating; these are common methods for contemporary art, but Blunt and Copeland conceal the guideposts that would allow us to locate a thread of continuity, a symbolic system that would permit access to specificity. What they provide instead is sensation, whether through hauntingly familiar melodies, the accretion of sonic detail, or the sub-bass frequencies that rumble beneath many of the most arresting moments on the album. But this sensation is not “pure” or abstract; it is deeply and inexorably tied to a sense of history, memory, failure, and melancholy. This is the sensation described by Walter Benjamin in relation to the allegorical text, in which “the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape… Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.” This is the same phenomenon described by Craig Owens in relation to postmodern art, in which the work of art becomes an allegory for its own illegibility, for the failure of meaning itself. In this sense, the “black” of the title is not racial blackness, but the blackness of the void, the “abyss” of occultism. And that void, evoked by the dark, inchoate pop of Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland, is indeed beautiful.