What’s that clattering sound, you ask? It’s Baauer’s sneakers hitting the pavement, running as fast as he can, clear across the globe, as far away as possible from “Harlem Shake.”
That song came out four years ago and was promptly memed by everyone, making a previously unknown DJ loved, mythologized, reviled, and the subject of cultural appropriation. He was subject to the whole, awful internet spin cycle, and it made him sick. “I got kinda depressed,” he told Pitchfork in 2013. He had somehow become the poster boy for something lower than a one-hit wonder: a one-meme wonder, a single drop, the background for which teenagers fucked around for thirty seconds.
“Aa,” his debut album, isn’t so much him wiping a clean slate as it is dunking the slate in Clorox. There are no conventional drops to be found. Baauer has a new purpose: DJ Game Alan Lomax, and appropriately, he finds some remarkable stuff without making a big statement or showing us much of his own instincts as a musician.
This is a try-hard album, filled with pointed signifiers of hipness. The features on this album are a Fader Global blogger’s wet dream: there’s Sri Lanka’s M.I.A., Atlanta’s Future, London’s Tirzah, Korea’s G-Dragon, Lewisham’s Novelist, Brooklyn’s Leikeli47. There are snippets of Brazilian dance cuts and tribal chanting from the United Arab Emirates. It could be an ethnomusicology thesis.
Thankfully, Baauer has a good ear for what to do with these artifacts, and he refrains from teacherly “can’t we all get along” assimilation. He leaves the pieces jutting out, letting the aesthetic oddities speak for themselves and war with each other. “Sow,” arguably the best beat of the album, is centered around a curious sample from the Brazilian-funk song “Jonathan da Nova Geração.” The chopped Portuguese tumbles out over a murmuring bass-drum hookup; Baauer effectively plays with pitch to feint a dialogue and gives the groove a slight swing while still respecting the tricky rhythm of the vocals.
Baauer is mostly successful with his guest stars as well, using them for their aural qualities rather than their content. “Day Ones” is more or less Baauer’s answer to Kanye’s “All Day,” and does far more to bridge the cross-Atlantic stylistic gap between grime and trap than Kanye’s bombastic Brit Awards performance. Both Novelist, a grime rapper who was onstage at that performance, and Leikeli47, a menacing Brooklyn weirdo, sound hyper-motivated to prove the superiority of their regional styles. It’s more or less a draw because they serve the same function to Baauer in their unique timbre and aggressiveness. In fact, the best part of Leikeli’s verse is when she forgoes words entirely and pretends to be another onomatopoeic sample: “Don’t swat flies, I go tick boom, boom / I, zoom zoom / I’ll flip on you too / Like Kendrick, doot doot doot doot doot.”
For the guest-heavy backend of the album, Baauer plays the role of expert home decorator, using his global bag of tricks to maximize the hazy sultriness of Tirzah, flippant attitude of M.I.A., the muted exuberance of Future. The only cameo that doesn’t work is Pusha T, whose voice can’t be divorced from the actual content of his storytelling.
All of this is to say that Baauer’s first album is more defined by his guests, and his non-”Harlem Shake”-ness, than himself. Which is okay, because he clearly has the chops and diligence to continue to grow. Hopefully after his world tour, he’ll find a landing spot.