The conceit that our organic selves are at a constant odds with a synthetic realm isn’t a new topic of conversation in 2013, but rarely on wax has an interesting tension been achieved between a musician’s thesis statement and what actually drifts out of your speakers. The Physics, a five-member hip-hop group from Seattle, explore “the relationship between digital and analog” on their new album, Digital Wildlife. The LP incorporates both digital and analog sounds, recorded and released via electronic means, but with plans for a re-release on analog cassette tape.
This is the way The Physics, at least superficially, tread into that lofty conversational territory, the likes of which Philip K. Dick and Daft Punk have also explored. It’s an ambitious endeavor, made by an ambitious crew of singers and rappers who fly relatively under the radar on the national scene. Their excellent new album, though, ends up accomplishing something fairly remarkable: re-projecting the digital-analog conflict not back upon the high-def screen you’re undoubtedly reading this on, but the bare epidermis of human-to-human contact.
The connective tissue binding all of these notions together on Digital Wildlife is, of course, love. The men (and woman) of The Physics are old enough to remember when the primary method of communication between lovers was the land line which, in turn, allows them some amount of insight into why it’s impossible to sustain love only in the online world. “Fix You” is the centerpiece track of DW and it deals in the old sentiment that says the best person to realize your imperfections is the one to whom you’re romantically tethered. The song re-frames the conception by having lead MC Thig Nat assume the voice of a repair-bot: “Can I fix you up? / Can I make you better? / Can I pick you up?” he sing-raps. “Fix You” has a stuttering electronic beat, with blips and beeps flung here and there. It’s musical ideas are achieved only through programming, but it doesn’t sounds programmed; the heartbeat is never sacrificed.
Digital Wildlife, like the group’s 2011 album, Love Is A Business, never treats infatuation as a reductive property. Even fucking for the sake of fucking is ultimately tied to our emotional synapses. “No Tellin” finds a rare solace in the unknown outcome of the infamous late night phone call: it could mean sex, it could be conversation, or it could even end in a breakup. The reward, in whatever form it takes, is worth the risk. “Play It Off” considers a woman so fine there’s no admonishing her for walking across the bedroom floor—what would normally be a shoe-free zone—in designer heels. Essentially, this is the sexy equivalent of not getting kicked out of bed for eating crackers. Love is never about getting what you want all of the time; flexibility and the courage to admit you don’t have all the answers are paramount to success in this game. Love truly is, a wild life.
The Physics produced and sequenced the record with an intelligence to match its crafty songwriting. That’s no shock considering their ethos as a group, a crew that practices the age-old custom of arranging albums as opposed to just collections of songs. DW is proof that hip-hop, as informed by electronic pop movements of the moment, can inform and enlighten without being overbearing. This is the rap equivalent of longform journalism, where 140 characters is never enough, just as piercing synth over a 4/4 beat rarely touches the soul in a meaningful way. There are familiar electronic elements here, like the radiant synth on “Polychrome” and the trap drums of “No Tellin”, and acoustic elements like the guitar interlude separating “By The Lake” and “Fix You”, but every detail is in its right place. In-house producer Justo and household rap name Jake One built ten tracks that are artful but never ostentatious, and then smartly linked them together with interludes that build on what comes before and after.
In the context of The Physics’ previous output—which now runs four LPs and one EP deep—Digital Wildlife takes more sonic risks than ever before. If you’re coming to this record with ears that have never heard, you might think they’re a little weird—not to mention incomplete, as Thig’s brother and partner in rhyme Monk Wordsmith is nowhere to be found. But the main takeaway from DW should be a sense of a group that is content making music primarily to satisfy the creative urges of its members. Quality over quantity is not a tired hustle to this crew.
By the end of Digital Wildlife, and considering The Physics’ prior body of work, you get the impression this group could attempt anything musically and succeed. That’s interesting considering the angle at which they approach this particular record; how it was made with the idea in mind of our organic selves being so deeply infiltrated by the digital, and how a mode of existence without that attachment feels impossible. The music video that accompanies the track “Am I Crazy” follows Thig as he attempts to recreate something from his memory. Ultimately what he pieces together is a tangible item that required painstaking time and attention to detail. Sometimes love requires a moment on the phone, not a haphazard, typo-laden message fumbled in the dark. Just because we can do it with our computers doesn’t mean we always should.