There's a moment in all good pop songs, that microsecond right before the hook; a space just big enough for an anticipatory gasp. In Colour, Jamie xx’s debut solo LP, feels like it's taken up permanent residency in that moment. It’s an album where the wait is just as important as the thing you’re waiting for; an album where what has already happened is just as important as what will happen.
What has already happened in the history of dance music is the starting point for Jamie xx (born Jamie Smith). Smith is obviously nostalgic for a scene that doesn't exist anymore, a feeling that’s reflected in In Colour’s almost obsessive chronicling of early UK dance music. He boils down rave music to its core, slices off bits of grime and house, and packs it all in a box lined with shreds of dancehall. Such unapologetic referencing could come off as static in the hands of another musician, but Smith's beatwork is subtle and flexible enough to sound like new territory.
Smith's beatwork is subtle and flexible enough to sound like new territory
These textures aren’t pulled from Smith's own 26-year memory, they're a collaged-together fantasy of a superfan born too late to experience any of it first-hand. The LP’s opener, "Gosh," samples an episode of DJ Ron and MC String’s mid-'90s BBC Radio 1 show One in the Jungle that never actually aired. Smith fits that BBC sample into a classic UK garage beat like he’s collecting things he wants to remember later. "Sleep Sound" could soundtrack a dream sequence from 1992. "Hold Tight" sounds like a radio broadcast funneled through a thin film of house music.
For all the time it spends looking over its shoulder, In Colour is an album that knows where it wants to fit into the current cultural landscape. When it came to the Young Thug and Popcaan-featuring "I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)" Smith explicitly said his goal was to make a summer jam that might get play on the New York radio station Hot 97, and he knew he couldn’t do that alone. The combination is a perfect balance: where Smith is cautious and slick, Young Thug's vocals are elastic and messy. Where Smith is an academic purist, Popcaan is almost soporifically casual.
Smith spends some time revisiting his own history, as well: specifically, as the producer and DJ for lonely-pop trio The xx. His xx cohorts Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim both show up on In Colour, and their contributions act like speed bumps for the album's breathless pace. "Loud Places" pairs Idris Muhammad’s 1977 disco hit "Could Heaven Ever Be Like This" with Croft’s hushed sorrow. "Stranger in a Room" pumps air into Sim’s dead-eyed baritone, making the song feel more like a lullaby than one of Sim's usual dirges.
It sounds like the album Smith has been waiting for someone else to make
At its core, In Colour sounds like the LP Smith has been waiting for someone else to make. It's a fan's album; it's a shrine. And while its walls and doors and windows have all been collected from other, long-gone structures, the foundation and construction is all Smith. In Colour's mining of the past might be frustrating to some, but it's only because Jamie xx is a little too much like anyone who's ever purchased an artist's entire discography in one rushed moment of admiration. If In Colour is uncomfortable for dance music obsessives, it's probably because it hits too close to home.
In Colour is an album so devoted to its own material it’s almost fearful of making a mistake. So unsurprisingly, there are almost almost no missteps here ("Obvs" doesn’t quite know what to do with the steel drum, but it knows those twinkles sound nice). It’s an album from a young kid who never got to go to a '90s rave, but who can craft one that's almost more real in his imagination. And because he wasn't there, he never had to leave. He can replicate that feeling, that moment right before the hook, and stay there as long as he wants. The party doesn't need to end.