Kaytranada: The Man In The Machine Smiles

'99.9%' positions the producer as artist

The great suspicion about machines is that they will one day rise up against their creators. In the video for “Lite Spots,” off the new 99.9%, Kaytranada and his creation, a stubby, adorable robot he tinkered to life in a garage, become friends. Man and his machine go on a joyful caper through the flora and fauna of a sun-washed Los Angeles, dancing and encouraging others to dance along the way. You can’t help but grin; your body, delightfully, is left no recourse but to bop to the neo-disco track, a skittish recapitulation of Brazilian Tropicalia artist Gal Costa’s 1973 single “Pontos de Luz.” 99%, which is Kaytranada's first full album, thrives in the space between technical proficiency and technical virtuosity, where the soul lights up. Free as it were from the segregating ideology of genre, 99.9% insists on matters of the soul. It insists on joy, and the dreamy journeys we manufacture to reach it.

99.9% isn’t a debut in the strictest sense. Kaytranada has been here before, both in this lifetime and, I think, in another. The 23-year-old Haitian-Canadian producer, born with the fortuitously celestial name Louis Kevin Celestin, started doing DJ sets when he was 14 years old. He called himself Kaytradamus. A deft student of J. Dilla and Madlib's work, he early on showed a maverick intelligence and an ease with both SoundCloud tech culture and music history via his remixes of canonical R&B. Part of that wisdom was knowing that vision, rather than hacking, was the way in. His career-defining, bass-heavy reinterpretation of Janet Jackson’s “If,” played as if forged in another geography, an Afrofuturist island where the only currency is dance. From 2012 on, Kay’s subsequent remixes doubled as defenses of the irrevocable link between dance music and general hip-hop culture. He accomplished all this while supporting his family, sharing a room with his brother, and living in a depression spurred by hiding his sexuality and perhaps a natural inclination toward interiority.

Two years ago, he signed to XL Recordings and began work on the album that would become 99.9%. A recent profile by Alex Frank at The Fader documents Kaytranada’s casting-off of shadows. “When the album comes out, I swear I’m gonna be everywhere. I’m gonna be, like, not just staying here in this basement making beats all the time,” he says. “I’ll be like a fucking bird from the nest, just fucking flying away to be free."

Kaytranada is out of the basement on 99%, and he is taking the trappings of sweet suburban juvenilia — the sounds of the video games, computers, and vinyl LPs marveled at in our youth — along as he steps into the outside light. “Bus Ride,” the album’s second track, translates the experience of traveling through a massive urban vista into tinkling tones backed by big strings. “Bus Ride" is also a jazz song, a sensibility Kaytra seems to work with on every alternating track here (“Despite the Weather” is another mind-melding jazz meditation on existing outside). Jazz allows an expression of space and atmosphere that 99.9% takes on as a sort of aspirational challenge. This is an album where collaborators have room to shine: Star session drummer Karriem Riggins on "Bus Ride" and the Canadian group BadBadNotGood on “Weight Off” each manipulate jazz’s grammar through their respective styles.

The vocal features on 99.9% are no less bold. It takes a visionary curator to challenge a cadre of au courant collaborators like the ones here out of their comfort zones. The list of complementary talents Kaytra called on -- Vic Mensa, Anderson .Paak, and Aluna Francis -- rub elbows with more niche, regional artists like North Carolina’s Phonte and the curiously hermetic English singer Craig David. The track featuring David, “Got It Good,” is a grown-and-sexy R&B song about love and money that feels like it could fit to past or present or future. So, too, with “Glowed Up,” featuring Anderson .Paak. Kaytra’s pairings with male vocalists in particular manifest the ignited colors and the muted regal spirit of a Kehinde Wiley painting. Female vocalists like Aluna Francis and Yukimi Nagano on “Bullets” create natural magic, too, albeit somewhat less energetically.

99.9% plays with disco, hip-hop and R&B, and even jazz in a space much looser than nostalgia. Kaytranada is looking toward the future. He is a student, and because he studies, he knows that genres were never just about categories — genres were social movements. Modern beatmaking, so often obsessed with its own chrome ingenuity, can fly in the face of the humans who innovated using older technologies. Technologies like dancing in the center of LED dance floors when society pushed you toward the margins, like battle-rapping on patrolled streets, like creating dense compositions improvisationally while everyone tried to copy you. Kaytra knows the integrity in championing his and his collaborators’ youth, but he will also always know where he came from.

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