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The Range makes obscure samples sound personal on Potential

The space between your life and random singers on YouTube

Producer James Hinton, aka The Range, uses samples like a construction worker uses concrete. The songs on his sophomore album Potential are composed of nearly all samples, and the samples become the backbones of his songs, the glue holding everything together. Most of the samples on Potential come from random YouTube videos, ordinary people singing for what they thought at the time was a nonexistent audience. So the whole album is really a collaborative effort. Potential opens with an unrecognizable voice: "Right now, I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it… I’ll just decide to move on." It’s an intimate realization, to think that being a musician is Plan A for someone you’ve never heard of. Potential feels like a portal into a world of strangers, making music for anyone who will listen.

The Range’s 2013 debut LP Nonfiction also relied heavily on sampling, but at times felt removed from the people it was sampling. Both albums find musical momentum in mystery, but Potential seems to invite the listener to get closer with each song. Songs like "No Loss," with its tunnel-vision whispers, or "Superimpose," with vocals that get more pleading as the song goes on, often sound like they were meant for one specific person to hear. As a listener, you either have to assume the role of that specific person, or as an eavesdropper. Listening to Potential, you get the sense that it must be the former — even if you have no idea who’s talking to you.

A portal into a world of strangers

There is a pattern to the way Hinton collects these YouTube samples. In an interview with The Verge, Hinton says he looks for videos that would normally fly under the radar of the average YouTube window shopper. Those videos with views stagnant in the double-digits, filmed from bedroom webcams. He even has a set of "go-to search terms" he’ll plug in to find what he’s looking for, but he won’t reveal what any of them are (magician’s secrets, and all that).

Hinton’s use of unrecognizable samples is a definite move, in a time when Kanye West can’t get through an album without sampling James Brown, and Diplo doesn’t shrink from borrowing a few bars from "Drunk in Love." But it’s a good move, because the foreignness of the samples means they don’t come with any preexisting connotations. "There's a much wider palette of emotions shown on YouTube, and you end up dealing with much more realistic, interesting things," Hinton said in a recent interview with Pitchfork. "There are people writing songs to their daughter and all sorts of specific things that would fall down in a popular context." Songs like "Copper Wire" and "Skeptical" sound familiar — cozy club beats will do that — but the vocals pulled from unknown musicians make it obvious you’ve never heard this before.

Even if the samples themselves aren’t explicitly recognizable, Hinton uses them to recall past moments in dance music. "Retune" sounds like bubblegum stuck to a PC Music edit; "1804," which features a tinny patois vocal, feels like a Caribbean dance party; "Five Four" channels UK grime and Baltimore club; and "Florida" wouldn’t feel out of place on a Grimes album. These tethers to existing musical traditions keep Potential from floating away, and turn a work that could seem intentionally secretive into something both familiar and inviting.

Potential is an album that feels like it’s on the precipice of something. Not only do the songs themselves often sound like they’re collectively building upwards, but the album as a whole feels capable of contextualizing an entire era of music online. It’s at once close and remote, futuristic and dated. Potential isn’t so much about the end result as it is about what the music could mean, for the people in the YouTube videos, and for electronic music as a whole. And even if we can’t quite see it yet, it feels like something big is about to happen.