Drift - (2009)
California has long been a prime breeding ground for instrumental hip-hop, from DJ Shadow's pioneering work in the form through Madlib's tireless explorations and iterations, and that's never been more true than in the late 2000s, as a cresting wave of interest in the work of the late J Dilla helped to spark something of a stylistic resurgence, while a handful of Los Angeles-based producers coalesced into a recognizable local scene centered around the venue Low End Theory. That scene's first prominent breakout star was Steve Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, who earned widespread notice with his 2008 Warp debut Los Angeles, but 24-year-old Jason Chung (Nosaj Thing) followed shortly thereafter, dropping his aptly named LP, Drift, the subsequent spring. As with FlyLo's work, Nosaj pushes well beyond the customary bounds of hip-hop into glitchy IDM, ambient, and even dubstep territory, foregrounding highly abstract electronic textures more reminiscent of artists like Prefuse 73, Aphex Twin, and Burial than the beatmakers referenced above, with hip-hop's rhythmic drive never entirely absent but often reduced to a spare, skeletal framework. But despite some clear stylistic parallels, Drift is a notably more austere, measured work that feels classically restrained in comparison to the fragmentary, static-soaked clutter of Los Angeles. With a distinctive sonic palette of muted squelchy synths, wordless vocals, and largely inorganic-sounding percussion, the album is curiously playful in spite of its somber, almost funereal tone, as it floats from the airy twinkles and reverberant handclaps of the opening "Quest" to the denser, menacingly murky electro-funk of "Coat of Arms" and the sinuous "1685/Bach." The album's latter half takes on an unexpectedly spiritual cast, partially due to Nosaj's use of decidedly churchy, organ-like textures. Though brooding, minor-key tonality and middle-range tempos remain dominant nearly throughout, the brief, nearly beatless "2222" and hazily serene "Us" introduce a welcome note of warmth and reassurance, before the murmurs and heartbeats of "Voices" usher in "Lords"' climactic, doom-laden choral fantasia. It's quite a stunning sequence, and evidence of the breadth of Nosaj Thing's compositional prowess, which extends from a fine ear for minute detail to a rare sense of album-length sweep.