Inna Style N Fashion, a four-track EP produced by the French DJ Douster and featuring four young Jamaican vocalists, marks an interesting new step in Brooklyn-based Mixpak records engagement with dancehall. While the label has a history with the genre that includes both last summer's "Kling Klang" riddim and label boss Dre Skull's production for Vybz Kartel's highly successful Kingston Story album, Inna Style N Fashion acts to solidify the association, cementing the Mixpak's identity as the premier American label for extra-insular electro-riddims.
For the most part, the tracks on the EP are in keeping with Mixpak's general dancehall aesthetic. Avoiding either serious low-end excursions or particularly beat-heavy structures, the tracks employ banks of glistening synths to construct the tracks' foundation, punctuating them with chopped and stuttering rhythmic elements drawn from the label's non-dancehall output.
At its best, this approach produces moments of real innovation- check the sudden break into G-funk flavored halftime on "Wine" or the almost- New Wave countermelodies that wind through the pop confection of "Never Lose." However, on the first two tracks- the AutoTuned, flow-heavy "Dollar Sign" and the lighthearted party track "Like A Genie"- the results are fairly standard dancehall. They aren't bad, but they don't have much replay value- especially when put next to the similarly styled hits currently coming out of Jamaica. The issue here seems to be a certain level of caution that never quite gets shrugged. And while it probably ensures that the EP is more consistent than many Jamaican releases, it also prevents it from hitting the level of pure pop intensity that marks the best dancehall. That said, the performances by the vocalists themselves are stellar; none of them is well known, but on the strength of their performances on this EP, basically any of them could- over the right riddim- blow up in the near future.
Given Mixpak's position in the rapidly evolving American electronic scene, it's interesting to attempt to pick apart the label's engagement with the sounds and styles of Jamaica. For one, dancehall's dialogue with American pop music has meant that, in an era dominated by four on the floor beats, the genre's already present electronic flirtation has grown ever stronger. At the same time, the aesthetic breakthrough represented by the trans-Atlantic connection of trap and dubstep (i.e., the reconceptualization of rap beats as electronic dance music in their own right) has created a rapidly growing inter-genre playground far larger than anything offered by the "Global Bass" underground. In this context, the move towards dancehall makes perfect sense- it's awesome music, and why not? In the past (and in much of Mixpak's output), the result of this has been the kind of quasi-dancehall electronica showcased on the "Pressure" series of compilations. While reflecting many of the genre's basic rhythmic tropes, these instrumental tracks float in the borderland between "dance" and "dancehall," never quite landing on either side of the line.
From its name and cover art to the style of its vocalists, it is very clear on which side of that line Inna Style N Fashion wants to land. The question then, is how dancehall created by producers interacting with it as one style of electronic music among many others differs from dancehall made by more traditional producers. Judging from this EP, the difference, while subtle, is definitely there. Divorced from the industrial aesthetics of Jamaican beat-making, all four songs on Inna Style N Fashion feel more like tracks and less like riddims- a crucial element of rhythmic modularity seems to be missing, one reflected in the bass and drum-light production of the EP. Given that the dizzying movement, alteration, and refashioning of these ultraflexible riddims is among the core principles of modern Jamaican music, a move away from them would mark a major change to the music. At the same time, as noted earlier, this freedom from the riddim allows for some of the EP's best moments. So it's a trade off- and an interesting one. Whether this kind of fusion continues to develop from here is anyone's guess.
Give the EP a listen, and tell us what you think!
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