There’s nothing that today’s crop of hip hop producers loves more than a concept album. Artists like Madlib and Oh No tend to dedicate whole albums to sampling a specific musical source, be it the music of India, obscure Mediterranean psych, or Ethiopian indigenous music. Add up and coming South London producer Paul White to that list. His sophomore album, Paul White and the Purple Brain, plunders the back catalog of little known Swedish psychedelic rock impresario S.T. Mikael for inspiration. Paul White weaves Mikael’s spaced out canon into his own dreamy productions for a record that drifts by, slight and unassuming as a summer breeze.
Mikael’s boisterous personality and wide array of musical guises gives White a lot to work with, and to his credit, White uses every weapon in the arsenal in these productions. Mikael’s love of Eastern music and psychedelic rock give Purple Brain much of its flavor. “Pride” gallops along on a bevy of tablas. “Dance Scene” outfits a simple propulsive drum beat with an army of clattering sitars. The stomping “Ancient Treasure” is heavily anchored in Mikael’s interpretations of classic ’60s raga rock. “Fly with Me” indulges the offbeat stretches of both White’s and Mikael’s work, pairing a limping drum pattern with an array of spooky noises that wander in and out of the mix. At times Purple Brain‘s musical versatility makes it sound like the work of five different artists.
White is throwing a lot of ideas on the table here, toying with off kilter time signatures, unusual instrumentation, oddball spoken word excerpts, and bits of haunting melody. Purple Brain runs through 25 songs in its 38 minutes. No idea hangs around longer than a minute or two, though. White gives you enough to get used to what he’s doing with the song, then he moves on. He covers a lot of musical ground this way, and the album’s more outre elements are admittedly more palatable in smaller doses. The album’s brevity is a gift in that sense.
If there’s anything wrong with Paul White and the Purple Brain, it’s the highly distinctive and flamboyant personality behind the source material. Mikael is a madcap musical genius, and he casts a huge shadow over the proceedings. Throughout many of Purple Brain‘s more dazzling moments, the focus sometimes shifts from what White is doing with these samples to what exactly is being sampled. White is a great producer, and he shouldn’t be overshadowed by the work of the artist he’s reinterpreting. It’s his voice we should be hearing in his work, not anyone else’s. Taking on S.T. Mikael’s back catalog may have proved a daunting task, but Paul White certainly makes it work for him.