If albums are ciphered windows into a musician’s psyche, what can the transition from Contact, Love, Want, Have to Aerotropolis tell us about Ikonika (a.k.a. Sara Abdel-Hamid) as a human being? Maybe this is a naive question to ask, but if art is to be consumed/lived as more than a superficial document of an individual’s fluctuating affinity for particular colors, lines, or soundwaves, then it would be jolly decent of us to regard the migration from the “wonky” post-dubstep of her debut to the glossy dance of her sophomore LP as the indicator of some psychological switcheroo. And judging by the insistent grooves and extroverted flashes of Aerotropolis, this new mindset of hers is more outgoing, balanced, and uncomplicated, and conversely less introverted, mercurial, and contrary. However, this may not be an entirely good thing, because even though it results in a more immediate, accessible, and therefore “sociable” record, it’s arguably at the cost of personality, or in more demystified terms, at the cost of those deviant quirks and quiddities that reassure us we’re dealing with the rawness of another sentient being, and not some adulterated image or simulacrum. Hence, the tracks on Aerotropolis jut and pulsate with a chilled energy, but at the same time, this energy plays out as a little too studied and over-familiar, in the end producing an album that, while initially coming across as “dynamic” and “fun,” eventually reveals itself as slightly faceless and uninteresting.
But there’s little doubt that in the beginning, at least, the stylistic mutation inherent to much of Aerotropolis isn’t without its floor-filling merits. “Beach Mode (Keep It Simple)” is a supremely focused hustle through hormonally-charged nightlife, its sleek central riff winding out of stablemate Jessy Lanza’s breathy guest vocals, and its name pretty much serving as a mission statement for the majority of the album. Similar uncluttered movability can be found in the summery pep and glistening keyboard runs of the faintly retro “Mr Cake,” which together with its predecessor throw up the suggestion that Ikonika has become less an awkward auteur of jittery garage/dubstep/chiptune and more a partying socializer, an easygoing reveler who seeks out the crowd and is happy to play to their tune.
If we were to ask where this new-found sociability and openness comes from, it could easily be tendered that Abdel-Hamid has become more self-assured as a person and as a producer/DJ, more confident in her own skin and therefore more willing to celebrate this via a form of danceable music that would bring her into an upbeat contact with similarly buoyant people. Pretty much the initial third of Aerotropolis fits this bill, with “Eternal Mode” being another clubby mover and shaker that couples a squelchy electro bass with lighter electronic spinnings and circlings, before jumping into an instrumental chorus that permutes around an agile synth workout. But even though it’s uncontroversial to claim that the activities of dancing and clubbing represent some latent or manifest desire to be among people, to feed on their company and proximity, it’s not necessarily the case that this desire is an expression of personal strength and confidence. In fact, it could just as plausibly be claimed that the need for immersion on a dance floor is as much a product of insecurity and self-doubt as it is the reverse, and is as much a need to find reprieve or validation for one’s “imperfections” in conformity and assimilation.
And without wanting to be too damning here, this speculation is to be directed solely at the music itself, since despite the fact that much of the album comprises perfectly serviceable nightclub fodder, considerable portions of it lack any kind of distinctive character, anything that would elevate it above the sea of heaving bodies into which it has consciously and diffidently subsumed itself. A case in point is “Lights Are Forever,” which in its watery verses and “euphoric” call-to-arms replicates a sound that was heard copious times during the late 80s and early 90s as part of the craze for house music. The various components of this track — the bright-eyed keys, the dubby bass, and the filtered “guitar” solo — are admittedly all added and subtracted with an appreciation for pacing and impact, but its aesthetics and structure are so tried and true that any potential impact is undermined from the get-go by predictability.
At certain points, there appears almost tacit acknowledgement of this failure, of the fact that indulging in more populist, crowd-pleasing tendencies doesn’t always reap the musical/social benefits it might promise. This emerges in the form of the occasional lapse into more oblique and nuanced material in the latter half of the 50 minutes, as though Ikonika is finally admitting the possibly conflicted and complicated emotions that have been obfuscated by her Procrustean translation into frisky nighttime music. The consequence of such a rediscovery is a cut like “Mega Church,” another fittingly named piece that’s composed primarily of crashing puffs of bass counterpointed by hasty triplets of a semi-baroque electronic organ, the two threads playing off each other harmoniously despite their evident tension and opposition. With this number, everything suddenly feels much more personal and substantial, and the song’s fuzzed-out, whitewashed coda only adds to its reinvigorating heft.
Things continue to mist over and darken with the likes of “Cryo” and “Backhand Winners,” with their juxtapositions of skulking drones and the fleet-footed, skewed melodies that sit atop them, but even with these shifts into somewhat more discordant territory, there’s still a marginal deficit in incident and effect, as if the experience of crafting more streamlined, popularly appealing music has filtered into and corroded the other sides of her repertoire and persona. And this is a shame, because even though the evidence isn’t excessively rife on Aerotropolis, it’s clear that somewhere under the shiny, retrogressive hedonism and 4/4 decadence, there’s a voice trying to escape the easy confines it has found for itself. Let’s hope it breaks out of its shell soon.