“I would like to do Brandy but weirder. Something that would resonate with most people, but make them feel a little uncomfortable.”
– Kelela Mizanekristos, FACT Magazine, March 19, 2013
“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”
– Viktor Schklovsky, “Art as Device,” 1917
Vertical XL begins to digest itself the moment it lurches into being. There is a schizophrenic delirium hidden inside the prism of perception. We lock eyes from far away and then you slowly turn your face. With Kelela’s doe-eyed micro-psychodrama twisting and fractalizing over Kingdom’s slow-burning trapgaze, “Bank Head” feels like something happening at exactly the right time, to an eerie degree.
The beat alone was already an earworm, making its debut in unassuming instrumental form on the Night Slugs Allstars Volume 2 compilation back in January 2013. But when the vocal version of the track dropped right before the singer made her live debut at SXSW, it sent the post-R&B/future bass cyber cognoscenti into a frenzy of attempted recognition, like they’d all simultaneously seen the form of their ideal avatars in Kingdom and Kelela’s brave hybrid — a potential energy swirling around in the atmosphere, just waiting for the right moment to appear in the material realm.
I could be extrapolating too much from my own personal reactions, but I don’t think I was alone in feeling haunted by the track. Judging by how much it got circulated and praised around the web, I think “Bank Head” resonated in a lot of listeners’ spines not because the songwriting was particularly cathartic or sonically unprecedented, but because of how breathtakingly now it sounded.
Today’s standard of “cool” hinges a lot on contemporaneity. Tracks can make the leap from obscurity into legit buzz status in a matter of hours, and when this happens, it induces the sounds with a meteoric, messianic energy, a residual transcendent aura that almost seems like it’s supposed to prove to us that we need to believe in the omnipotence of the network, the cloud, whatever you prefer to call it. “Bank Head” is one of those artifacts that somehow crystallized into “classic” form before anyone even had the chance to digest it — our ears were already primed for its existence.
On Vertical XL, Kingdom reigns over the eerie deterritorialized Wild West of the networked psyche, wherein the constellation of sensory data constantly rearranging between us is making unreliable our old models of physicality. Geographical constructs that used to give art a specific contextual meaning — the local scene, the record store, the kid walking around the halls of his high school with his headphones clamped on his ears — have become at least quasi-inhabitable for any half-decent Googler. These spaces no longer belong to us; actually, they never really have. The matrix of influence has been uprooted and made translatable, the human subject gone porous and dangerously adaptable. Total vertical integration.
This is not to say that the “influence” of influence has gone away completely — Kingdom undoubtedly draws from the nocturnal entropy of Dance Music proper, but what makes him and his Fade to Mind contemporaries stand out is a knack for conjuring up moments of uncanny generic confluence. Vertical XL’s songs are a recombinant constellation of sounds from the strung-out club imaginary — grime, dubstep, house, trap, even techno — resculpted into an unforeseen, unfamiliar contraption.
Club inspirations aside, the songs on Vertical XL are deliberately not dance music. Rather, it is what a UK bass-obsessed friend of mine likes to refer to (with equal parts disdain and fascination) as “dance music for people who don’t like to dance.” The cover art is elucidating in this regard: a pile of chrome-sprayed trash rises off the plane of immanence towards the heavens, an effervescent aura lifting the cast-off detritus of our post-cyber trash. Kingdom is reflective of the growing contingent of artists who refuse to participate in the infinite subgeneric splintering that makes dance music scenes eat themselves, instead zeroing in on the liminal spaces between sounds: moments of chemistry shared between misplaced particles. Synchrony begins to creep in with the exhaustion of the generic trope; everything begins to tend towards itself.
The sonic data we share no longer moves imperceptibly between us, whispered about in basements and empty warehouses — now, like the Gatorade-enhanced bodies of professional athletes, every traceable sound comes with a discrete set of stats, its own dynamic map of distribution and popularity capable of elucidating transgeographical affinities and a virtual chronology. It’s becoming easier to imagine developments in sound and in idea to be moving algorithmically, like a millisecond-by-millisecond aesthetic ticker. The microcomputational speed of our ravenous sonic market forces the critic and the listener into the novel role of the discourse-conduit — the connoisseur not of one special area, but of the general movement of everything. The artifacts that spill out from the contemporary-fetishist are compelling, but also a little bit unsettling: tracings of a psycho-sonic continuum between producer and consumer so utterly fluid that its shape has already wormed away from us by the time we’ve begun to grasp it.