jj18 jj’s prayer

[Houndstooth; 2018]

Styles: sound collage, fractured confessionals, hyperreal r&b
Others: 18+, Janet Jackson, D/P/I, Babyfather, Organ Tapes

Works that foreground obvious interrogations of culturally fabricated binaries risk coming across as either contrived or obvious. However, perennial TMT favorite 18+ (Justin Swinburne and Samia Mirza) have been explicitly rejecting gender and genre essentialism with clumsy grace and calculated ease since 2011’s M1XTAPE, cultivating what our own Rob Arcand has called “dramatized ambivalence.” As a duo, Swinburne and Mirza play off each other in a natural way that conversationally addresses themes of identity malleability and virtualization without seeming prescriptive or pretentious; conceptually, 18+ is a project that is ostensibly about problematizing discussions about authenticity in pop music, but much more interestingly, it sounds fresh and light and provocative, not derivative of an imagined duet between Janet and Michael, but reminiscent of its emotional impact.

jj’s prayer, Swinburne’s debut solo release as jj18, is — like every 18+ release — an interrogation of power differentials between individuals, but its meditations are hermetic here instead of dialectic. Sonically and conceptually, jj’s prayer is provocative in that elusive 18+ kind of way, but absent feedback from Mirza, it feels fermented and heavy and fraught. Fortunately, it doesn’t sound as simple as its press release suggests: “While 18+ was a project that touched on the relationship between two people, jj18 is about an individual attempting to piece together their own narrative of identity in an increasingly fragmented world.” Opener “terrible” sounds like it could be a B-side from 18+’s underrated sophomore album, Collect; one can imagine what a Mirza verse would sound like over its generic yet passable post-trap beat.

Next comes “a cold,” a D/P/I-recalling collage consisting of pitch-shifted samples of confessions about holding a gun. A backgrounded harp-sounding riff reminds me of Babyfather’s looping guitar on “Stealth,” but here it is compositionally uninspiring and cloying, despite being intellectually stimulating; overall, it makes an impact, but its replay value diminishes with each listen. Although little else on jj’s prayer sounds like it, it’s emblematic of what works and what doesn’t on Swinburne’s debut statement: sections are either musically or conceptually intriguing (though rarely both simultaneously), and certain samples are haunting; but as a whole, jj’s prayer is more draining than it is rewarding.

What’s most disappointing about jj’s prayer is that its heavy-handedness obscures its most affecting moments, and there are several: “game1” is a refreshingly unorthodox pop song wrapped up in a strange postmodern pun deriving from its lyrics (“It’s a dangerous game”) in combination with its Indonesian-inspired backing track (gamel); “better days” is a somber piano-driven trap ballad that is sullen without being oppressive; and closer “late” is a chillingly idiosyncratic take on a spectrum of fractured confessional music ranging between Drake and Organ Tapes.

For die hard fans of 18+, jj’s prayer is more than redeemable when either split into discreet units or when experienced as a 48-minute visual. But however you end up interacting with it, its weight doesn’t feel like a mistake. This is tough music that reflects its situation as a broken product of contemporary global fascism. Perhaps it is comparatively pricklier than a typical 18+ mixtape for reasons darker than personal strife; perhaps its true triumphs just need time to develop in the sludge pools of combination darkroom clubs. If anything, jj’s prayer gives some gravity to 18+’s lightness in ways that I could never have imagined, and that in itself is a small triumph.

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