[caption id="attachment_16349" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Joker photo courtesy of 4AD."][/caption]
When it comes to the pop-ification of previously underground sounds, are you a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person? Dubstep producer Joker's first album The Vision may be the greatest contemporary confrontation of the question above. 'Lovely' and 'soothing' are words that come to mind when describing The Vision, and these are words not typically associated with wobble-prone dubstep, which at its most aggressive seems hell-bent on inducing vertigo. If Skrillex's aggro take on the genre is "brostep," as it is often called, The Vision is sisstep.
This either marks a new, ambitious high for pop or a new low in the watering down of dubstep -- it depends on your emotional attachment to the genre in the first place. From the perspective of a die-hard U.S. R&B listener and someone who's bonded with no dubstep-inflected production more than the all-out pop of Katy B's "Katy on a Mission," The Vision is a vision of beauty. It is a vision of what R&B could sound like if properly dubstep-infected.
"The day that dubstep becomes a spa soundtrack may be the day it dies for good. But then again, spa soundtracks could probably use such sprucing up."
First single "The Vision (Breathe In)" finds South London singer Jessie Ware unleashing a reverberating Euro wail reminiscent of Snap against twinkling chiptunefulness and sustained buzzing synths that sound like unfrozen John Carpenter score relics. It's relatively subdued, too, like a mid-tempo R&B jam fed through a malfunctioning computer. Bristol-based Jay Wilcox sing-speaks over "Electric Sea" and the effect is Bone Thugs in space, a modernization of the fast-slow jam form that Mariah Carey and Destiny's Child began championing in the late '90s. The rhythm track of "On My Mind" is all clicks and lagging sub bass, set against a hyper, inverted take on those chafing, ascending chords in the Timbaland/Timberlake collabo "My Love." "Mind" is the sound of R&B -- the most progressive of all pop genres -- coming back around to the future, especially since guest William Cartwright's moaning vocal could convincingly sit between Trey Songz and Miguel on U.S. radio. The Vision's instrumental tracks weaken the case for The Vision to be strictly interpreted as a pop album, but just barely. The zipping synths of "Tron" won't melt your face off; they'll calm you into comfortable numbness. This is, simply put, the most forward-thinking easy-listening album in recent memory -- maybe ever!
But does bringing dubstep out of its comfort zone and into something more comfortable for the masses mark a step back for an aggressive genre, or a step forward for it? Must branching out be gnarled to be valid, or can it acceptably result in lovely foliage? Time will tell. Joker's work isn't exactly what Enigma did for hip-hop drum loops, but if that comes, we might shake our fists at the loosening of the genre that Joker provided. The day that dubstep becomes a spa soundtrack may be the day it dies for good. But then again, spa soundtracks could probably use such sprucing up.
Regardless, it's a very exciting time for the genre. With approximations of it appearing on high-profile U.S. releases this year like Britney Spears' Femme Fatale and Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne, it feels very much on the brink of ultimate pop penetration. Joker's The Vision is a snapshot of a genre on the cusp: this album could only be more right now if it had some explicit Occupy… agenda. It predicts either what the pop landscape will become (in part, at least) or what the innovators will rebel against when the next big style of dance music starts melting hearts and faces underground. No matter where we fly from The Vision's jumping off point, the ride should be exhilarating.
The Vision is out on November 8 via 4AD. Joker will appear as part of Hard Fest at New York City's Terminal 5 on Saturday, October 22.
Rich Juzwiak is a writer and video editor whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Jezebel, and on This American Life. He runs the pop culture blog fourfour.