For many modern artists, making hip-hop music becomes a constant balancing act between the tastes of the mainstream audience and the preferences of the avant-garde. No one wants to appeal completely to the lowest common denominator; Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers can personally attest to the way oversimplification kills a career, but no one wants to be too far out in the pasture, either. Good luck finding a B L A C K I E video on YouTube without an avalanche of comments asking, “Is this even music?!” In this genre divided by such lines of creativity, artists that can manage to appeal to both sides of the fence rise to the top; Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap combines a squealing MC with catchy production, Kanye West’s Yeezus took the tried-and-true Kanye flavor and gave it some industrial spice and Run the Jewels 2 mingled El-P’s glitchy production with Killer Mike’s relatable rhymes. In today’s hip-hop, the cream of the crop are walking the tightrope with ease. That’s why it’s likely you’re going to be hearing a lot more about The Stand4rd in the years to come.
The Stand4rd’s self-titled debut exists in that sweet spot right between too-experimental-to-be-catchy and too-catchy-to-be-experimental. Members Allan Kingdom, Bobby Raps, Psymun and Spooky Black carve a novel space in the larger music landscape. “Simple Needs” perfectly exemplifies this by choosing to lay icy, gorgeous, bittersweet synths alongside weird, stretched, squeaky samples of what might have once been human voices. The unusual companionship results in a soundscape that invites sadness and reflection without having to resort to easy tricks. This mixture of wild creativity and reserved catchiness is found through the entire project, from the rising keys in the back of “Pretty” to the spacious minimalism of the awesomely titled “AsapRockyTypeBeat.” “Stay” switches it up by giving the listener two excellent beats for the price of one, while “No Reply” coats its instrumental with some beautiful sounds that wouldn’t sound out of place in the Bomberman 64 soundtrack. Thestand4rd is consistently surprising.
The Stand4rd’s bridging of the gap between playing it safe and keeping it experimental extends down to its melding of rap and R&B. A hybrid of these genres has been a common theme in contemporary hip-hop, usually with the R&B dedicated exclusively to the hook and rap locked up in the verses. The Stand4rd breaks this tradition by flowing seamlessly between the two, not feeling obligated to box either into a particular role. “Tryna Fuk/No Reply” comfortably fits singing alongside the spitting, while “Victims” forgoes rapping entirely. It’s another way that the album gives itself some variety.
A few minor quibbles with this album pop up, but they are not significant enough to become a distraction. For as creative as some of the weird noises in the background of songs can be, the synth tones will ring familiar to anyone who has indulged in the many artists similar to Spooky Black (a member of this project). That familiarity does start to wear thin on the second half of the album, where not enough new emotions or ideas are introduced to end the package with a truly powerful punch. A perfect example of the kind of game-changer the later half of the album needed more of would be “Weight,” a sudden foray into the darker aspects of relationships that jolts the listener awake with an abrupt change in tone, complete with a palpably dark beat constructed out of what sounds like a twisted phonograph. There are moments when The Stand4rd seem to be ascending to next-level, but the album is never able to sustain that kind of quality.
The Stand4rd are poised to be the next big hit in a generation composed almost entirely of slightly-off-kilter big hits. A continued dedication to balancing the catchy and the creative could land them the kind of acclaim found by Chances and Kanyes of the past. But, just as with the artists before them, the key is to continue evolving.
4.5 out of 5
You can download The Stand4rd on SoundCloud.