2011 was the year of the free mixtape. Acts like Danny Brown, Death Grips, and A$AP Rocky all broke through by releasing music for no charge. Amid these successes were some tapes that passed completely under the radar. The Narcissist II by Dean Blunt is one such tape. The half-hour compilation is a blend of lo-fi R&B, hip hop, and drones, tied together with samples of theatric verbal abuse. It’s a disorienting mess, but an interesting one nonetheless. Near mixtape’s end, there is a striking duet between Blunt and his songwriting partner Inga Copeland. The song is a rare moment of clarity; to the beat of a moody slow jam, they emerge from their hazy image and present themselves in a more accessible light. As two members of the experimental electronic group Hype Williams, Blunt and Copeland have always reveled in obscurity, by scarcely interviewing and using fake names (“Dean” and “Inga,” they are not). Because they camouflage their identities with the Internet, it might be easy to quickly dismiss them as another hype act that strives for cult status.
But there’s the mysterious image and then there’s the music itself; Black Is Beautiful is sufficient evidence that Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland are more than just shadowy shtick. The album is a mélange of synthscapes, programmed percussion, hodgepodge samples, and reverbed vocals, a product that sounds toiled over. Yet their clear effort is masked by exceptionally lo-fi production. The record sounds like it was recorded on a cell phone, and honestly, it might have been.
Within their grainy template, Blunt and Copeland span a palette of electronic genres, an incongruous combination of dub, juke, and whatever else they might have been listening to at the moment. Their scope would seem incoherent if it weren’t for a track sequence that keeps the album running smoothly. For instance, “8” floats along an ambient synth arpeggio before giving way to “9,” which opens with a pitch-shifted vocal that eerily mumbles, “never look back… never look back… never look back.” Once the haunting vocal loop has definitely worn out its welcome, a beat appears and “9” shifts into a couple of grimy rap verses. The low-grade aesthetic and constant transitions patch the record together without feeling randomized. That’s the allure of Black Is Beautiful: it’s scatterbrained to say the least, but there is a very organic unraveling to the album’s fragmented chaos.
Yet with that organized assortment also comes my biggest problem with the album. Because of the amount of musical ground that Blunt and Copeland trace, from ambient to Europop to R&B, most of the songs on Black Is Beautiful are more flashes of ideas rather than complete tracks. And it’s not as though these motifs can pass as minimalist, either, because many of them are too brief to be considered as such. “11,” for instance, relies on the catchiness of a single vocal melody and rhythm to carry the entire song through its two-minute duration. “3,” “6,” and “7” hardly exceed a minute and are little more than a drum loop and a synth. Black Is Beautiful, then, is perhaps best described as a compilation of interludes, tracks that would serve well as interstices for a mixtape, if nothing else.
The most repetitive motif-qua-song on the album, and also the centerpiece, is the marathon track “10.” As an 808 and a bass synth lay the groundwork, “10” drags itself out to a seemingly arbitrary length of 9 and a half minutes, as Copeland’s drowsy voice peaks in the mix and squelching electronics sound off left and right. It sounds as though it could cut out at any moment, yet it persists and continues messing around with different keyboard settings. While it’s not my favorite song on the record, “10” speaks to the character of this entire album. Black Is Beautiful is a celebration of exploring with styles, sorting out what works and what doesn’t, fleshing out the good bits and trimming down the bad bits. The finished product sounds like a work in progress, which is cool, but here’s to hoping that Blunt and Copeland will improve the production quality and fully realize their genrebending sketches next time around.