Kenny Beats: Louie review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(XL Recordings)
The hip-hop producer’s debut album is affectionately infused with the spirit of his father’s mixtape introductions, along with good splash of obscure 70s soul

In his own telling, the debut album by Kenneth Charles Blume III shouldn’t exist. He’s best known as Kenny Beats, a hip-hop producer whose CV ranges from Vince Staples to Jpegmafia to Slowthai, and is something of an internet celebrity, too. He’s racked up millions of views for his YouTube series the Cave, on which Blume makes a beat on the hoof and guest artists, including Doja Cat, Lil Yachty and Freddie Gibbs, freestyle over it; Billie Eilish and Skrillex have appeared as judges on his Twitch channel “beat battles”, where unknown producers fight it out to win equipment.

Despite his productivity, Kenny Beats has said he had no ambition to make a solo album on the grounds that he “didn’t have anything to say”, a noble sentiment that’s never stopped many musicians. His mind was apparently changed when he found himself unexpectedly quarantined in Bath – he was working on Idles’ fourth album, Crawler – and received the news that his father had been diagnosed with cancer.

Kenny Beats: Louie album cover.
Kenny Beats: Louie album cover Photograph: Publicity image

It sent Blume back to the compilation tapes that his father made in the 90s. A former basketball player and would-be broadcaster who struggled with drug addiction, Blume senior would introduce his selections in the style of a radio DJ. They audibly inform the music on Louie, which comes complete with spoken-word interludes, usually featuring lo-fi recordings of his dad’s voice, occasionally in conversation with Blume’s younger self. It rattles through 17 tracks in just over 30 minutes, leaping suddenly from one to the next like an over-eager mixtape compiler who can’t wait for a song to finish before hitting you with the next. The fact that it was apparently intended just as something to give his father might dictate its overall mood, which is wistful and reflective rather than downcast.

Its main sample source is obscure 70s soul, the kind of stuff that ends up being excavated decades later by labels such as Numero Group and Light in the Attic. There’s a particular slant towards the various adolescent African American vocalists who emerged in the wake of the Jackson 5’s success: the Triads’ Now I Can Hold My Head Up High, Shira Small’s Eternal Life – a track recorded as part of a school project – and Foster Sylvers’s fabulously exuberant Misdemeanor, a minor US hit in 1973, but doomed to obscurity by its author’s subsequent conviction for a child sexual abuse offence.

Kenny Beats: Louie 003 teaser – video

The vintage of the tracks Louie draws on often makes its contents sound a little like early 90s G-funk, albeit a ramshackle take on the Dr Dre-pioneered genre. That’s partly because most of the source material sounded a little ramshackle in the first place, recorded fast and cheap for tiny labels or private pressings (the Triads’ single was put out by a short-lived Florida enterprise called, unbelievably, Gimp Records), and partly because Blume arranges them in a deliberately haphazard way, creating patchworks of sound with the stitching and the seams evident.

Sometimes you sense he’s driving at a subtly emotional effect. Paranthesis features lush strings and horns, lazy flecks of wah-wah guitar and a laid-back electric piano solo, but the beat behind them seems a tiny fraction out, as if it’s stumbling slightly and holding on to the music for balance. Every vintage sound on That Third Thing feels out of focus, a memory of which you can conjure the outline, but can’t fully access. On Hold My Head, the vocals are optimistic and radiant – “I’m on top of the world … I’m in ecstasy it seems” – but Blume manipulates them so they occasionally slip very slightly out of tune, as if he’s touching the edge of a turntable as a single plays. The effect is jarring, like hearing a voice proclaiming that everything’s fine, as it wobbles with emotion.

The standard approach for a hip-hop producer helming a solo album is to pack it with starry features. Here, there are brief, obvious guest appearances from Jpegmafia and Slowthai, the latter in particular on raging, foul-mouthed form (few things puncture a mood of wistful reflection quite like a bloke from Northampton snapping: “Fuck your mum, fuck your sister, fuck your fucking sperm donor of a dad”) but their contributions are largely looped and distorted, part of the overall wash of sound rather than spotlit star turns. Given the circumstances of the album’s genesis, nothing either of them has to say feels as striking as the repeated phrases Blume picks out from old records: “We live for ever”; “I say goodbye just to miss you”; “I’ll be there, I really love you”.

But you don’t need to know the backstory to enjoy Louie. (And happily, Blume’s father is still with us.) Strange but hooky, sonically unified but constantly changing, possessed of an odd emotional pull, the music here would grip you regardless. There’s a certain bravery involved in releasing something so personal to the general public: listening to Louie makes you glad Blume chose to.

This week Alexis listened to

Sha Sha – Themba Lami ft Ami Faku
From the Zimbabwean singer-songwriter’s new album I’m Alive, a heavy-lidded slowly floating ballad that’s an unwittingly perfect end-of-the-summer soundtrack.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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