Kaytranada’s career bloomed on SoundCloud, a platform that blurs the line between original artistry and curation more readily than other music services. Scroll through the Montreal producer’s feed (his real name is Louis Kevin Celestin) and you’ll see a mix of scrappy solo beats, polished singles you can purchase on iTunes, remixes, and production work he’s done for other artists, all smushed together into one reverse-chronological stream. (Scroll back far enough and you’ll find his 2012 remix of Janet Jackson’s "If," the track that made him a name to watch.)
It’s an environment in which it can be tough for a producer to stand out; it’s even harder to suss out the identity they’re trying to cultivate as an artist unto themselves. And that’s why 99.9%, Kaytranada’s debut full-length for XL, is so impressive: it’s fully formed and confident, the clear product of a single person’s vision and taste even as it hops between sounds and guests with abandon.
He cut his teeth in clubs around the world, but 99.9% isn’t just a dance record. There’s roughly an even split between four-on-the-floor thumpers and more viscous, down-tempo material, and every track is the product of a vibrant mixture of influences: Flying Lotus, French touch, and flexible funk, swirling together like sauces in a burrito. Combined with the impressive guest list, the album feels less like a club set than the soundtrack for a fantastic party, one full of people you may not know but find yourself wanting to meet. The roster of collaborators is all over the place: jazz musicians, versatile rappers, indie veterans, and other rising musicians working in the same hard-to-define space.
They have widely varying skill sets, but Kaytranada finds a way to bring out the best in all of them. He’ll redeem the slumping Vic Mensa in one breath (the slippery single "Drive Me Crazy") and turn out muscular jazz-fusion with the Toronto band BADBADNOTGOOD in the next. "Glowed Up" is a woozy showcase for the talented Anderson .Paak, who showed off the same kind of adaptability on his LP Malibu earlier this year. The album is studded with guest spots from distinctive female vocalists — AlunaGeorge’s Aluna Francis, Syd from The Internet, Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano — who retain their identities within Kay’s pulsing arrangements. It’s hard to find a common thread linking all of these people, and yet they feel like members of a larger collective within the context of the album.
When these songs have lyrics, they’re usually focused on good times: celebrating your relative fortune, having a few too many drinks, patching things over with friends so you can go out and have fun. There are some promising introspective moments. Seasoned multi-hyphenate Phonte steals the smooth "One Too Many," a song about getting tired of masking your loneliness with nights at the club: "All I really want / is just a night at home with her by candlelight." Syd’s featherweight "You’re the One" perfectly captures the feeling of falling for someone when you should know better.
Is he interested in more than just the groove?
But these feel like expressions of Kaytranada’s guests’ personalities rather than his own, and if this album’s missing something that’s it: a glimpse at the man behind the boards. He seems like a fascinating guy with a perspective worth exploring. He came out as gay in a profile by The Fader just a few weeks ago, a decision that takes a remarkable amount of bravery even when it’s being done in private; he works within a musical sphere that’s largely white, even as his own work is inextricable from decades of black artistry and innovation.
I’d love to hear him assert himself more consciously within his music, bringing some of that experience to bear. It’d be a big leap, and it’s one you might not even consider necessary given the strength on display within 99.9%. If he wants to nail down the groove and leave it at that, he can consider his mission accomplished. But this album suggests he’s interested in something bigger, and its very existence represents a step forward of similar magnitude. I wouldn’t put a cap on his ambition anytime soon.