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Hudson Mohawke transcends the confines of trap with new album Lantern

Hudson Mohawke transcends the confines of trap with new album Lantern


The trap prince is all grown up and getting ambitious

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Photo by Tim Saccenti

There are a few things Hudson Mohawke wants you to know as he readies the release of Lantern, his second official full-length. He’s a trustworthy and gracious collaborator; he’s a knowledgeable, curious, and versatile musician, not just a button-pressing nerd; he’s a maturing artist and normal dude, closer to that guy you see at your local bar’s hip-hop night than some fame-starved egomaniac. Most importantly, he’s trying to send a message out of some musical version of The Elephant Man: I am not a trap lord! I am a human being! It’s the one constant in every interview he’s conducted in advance of the album’s release: Mohawke has been stifled — trapped, you might say — by one specific branch of his successful career. Lantern is his escape plan.

HudMo is trying to send a message: "I am not a trap lord! I am a human being!"

After a formative period spent in DJ competitions and PlayStation music programs, then-21-year-old, Glaswegian-born Ross Birchard signed to venerable British electronic label Warp in 2007 as Hudson Mohawke; two years after that, he released Butter, a Ritalin-addled explosion of funk, soul, and colourful, cluster-bomb synths. By 2011, Mohawke’s new material was glittering and mammoth, pairing the rhythm and structure of hip-hop with the synthetic textures and sharpness of electronic music. When he partnered with Canadian DJ Lunice as TNGHT for an eponymous EP a year later, they ended up laying the groundwork for an entire subgenre of dance music.

From "Harlem Shake" and "Turn Down for What" to festival stages around the world, EDM trap fused the trunk-rattling bombast of Southern hip-hop with the more-more-more dynamics of American dubstep. TNGHT did it early and did it best, with brain-melting bangers like "Goooo" and "Higher Ground" that whacked festival crowds like punches from cartoon superheroes. I can personally attest to their insane impact: one of my most memorable live moments involves Flying Lotus dropping an as-yet-unreleased "Higher Ground" into his DJ set at Pitchfork’s music festival in 2012. I’ve never seen or felt a crowd move like that before. TNGHT’s success vaulted Mohawke and Lunice to new heights; at the same time, Mohawke signed a contract with Kanye West’s label G.O.O.D. Music and was part of the massive crew behind West’s Yeezus, the 2013 acid bath that reset the rapper’s musical career. Production work for rappers like Pusha T and Drake soon followed.

A reaction to one-dimensional, over-the-top masculinity

It all sounds rosy, but there was one problem: in Mohawke’s eyes, his phenomenal success as both a hip-hop producer and one of the forefathers of trap was belying his voracious, omnivorous musical interests. After announcing TNGHT’s indefinite hiatus at the end of 2013, Mohawke doubled down on finishing his long-awaited second full-length. And now that Lantern is out in the wild, everything about it feels like a reaction to the one-dimensional, over-the-top masculinity that’s come to define Mohawke’s descendants post-TNGHT.

The album is consciously couched in the rhetoric of "true artistry": Mohawke’s talked about gleaning his "executive producer" approach from Kanye, the album’s diverse array of guests, its conceptual underpinnings, and its breadth of styles and sounds. (Electronic music’s still vulnerable to the sinister creep of traditional ideas about musical legitimacy, even in its position at the vanguard of genres.) Mohawke’s Glaswegian contemporary (and labelmate) Russell Whyte, the maximalist producer who records as Rustie, made a very similar play last year with his own second full-length, Green Language. In attempting to make a more nuanced and comprehensive artistic statement, he ended up largely stripping his music of the intensity and vitality that won him plaudits in the first place. Even if Lantern appeals to a certain strain of musical conservatism, it’s not a risk-free gambit.

The component parts are familiar, but there's brightness and levity

Mohawke succeeds, in large part because he compensates for a lack of sheer magnitude with thoughtfulness and balance. "Scud Books" is a great example: its component parts are familiar, with horns out of the Imperial March and an elephant stomp of a beat, but there’s a brightness and levity to its doodling synths and spry handclaps. It’s been cleansed of any menace that might have rendered it oppressive. Similarly, while "Lil Djembe" isn’t that structurally innovative — it wouldn’t feel out of place on the TNGHT EP in that regard — it’s pushed off-kilter by eerie, toy box-like percussive elements. And for every textbook-adjacent heater like the ones mentioned above, Mohawke tries his hand as a different genre somewhere else: the modern classical of Philip Glass and Steve Reich (via Emeralds) on "Kettles" and "System," "The Final Countdown" gone French touch of closer "Brand New World," moody Prince-aping funk on Jhené Aiko collaboration "The Resistance."

Once more likely to wow you with texture, dynamics, and pure force than melody, Mohawke’s discovered a newfound gentleness and sentiment, especially on the album’s strong vocal features. He told The Verge’s own Emily Yoshida last week that "leaving space for vocals is something [he’s] worked on learning over the last two or three years," and that work has paid off. He gives guests room to shine and highlights their best qualities, whether cocooning Antony’s soft tenor in his own sampled vocals or giving Miguel room to butt up against the end of a microphone’s range over grainy, faraway synths. Best of all is "Ryderz," which charts an entirely new path forward for Mohawke: working over a sample of D.J. Rogers’ 1973 cut "Watch Out for the Riders," he pays homage to the deft, soulful work of hip-hop producers like Just Blaze and the young Kanye West, arranging with patience and real joy. It’s proof positive that Mohawke can match the effectiveness of TNGHT’s titanic jams without falling back on the same old tricks, and the thought of that compromise worming its way into his work for his other artists is really exciting. Lantern may not inspire any new genres, but it accomplishes what Mohawke set out to achieve: it frees him from the legacy of trap and confirms his worth as an inquisitive, eager artist.