It’s always been hard to pinpoint which episode of The Simpsons is the one – the funniest, the best, the most heartfelt – but for a while now, when I’m asked which one is my favourite, I zero in on “Summer of 4 Ft. 2”. The closing episode of the seventh season and featuring a guest appearance of Christina Ricci, it sees the family take a trip to Flander’s beach house, which allows Lisa the opportunity to shed her familiar skin and rebrand herself as a mid-90s slacker. All skater aesthetic, she bumps into a group of local youths and – for the first time – makes friends. The plot reaches a climax when Lisa realises she’s accepted the way she is, because her new friends ultimately love her, not the vibe she embodies or clothes she wears. It’s a great episode, packed with mid-90s aesthetics and a genuinely heartfelt message, which kind of shifts Lisa into a much more relatable character. But most of all, it functions as a bubble into an era prior to the internet, where it was harder to find people that thought like you if you, like Lisa, were a bit of a weirdo. Sometimes all it takes is to tell you that it’s going to be OK.
OK, maybe to Zoomers that sounds cringe. But, really, there’s a poetry in finding your own comfort in a tangible world offline, with no further matrix or (blergh) irony. Because if you thought you’re the only one around to dig something, to actually collide with somebody who’s just like you… matters. A lot.
But these days are over.
Nowadays, you can just go online, plug in and find anyone like you, no? Well… it’s complicated. Social bubbles may exist, but they embody a distance, a virtual space where our friends forever remain strangers. After all, the internet is dead! And we stare at a screen instead of actually marvelling at a shared moment we’re witness to and in the presence of.
In that regard, George Clanton‘s presence in the musical ecosystem of the past 10 years is invaluable. Manifesting early on during the heyday of the vaporwave genre and spearheading the label 100% Electronica, Clanton introduced a face and personality to an anonymous playground – and the man is fucking charismatic, too. Slowly building an empire by signing young talent and reissuing obscure oddities, he exploded into the wider consciousness outside of the bubble with 2018’s Slide, an instant viral hit that mixed vaporwave, shoegaze, slacker-grunge and 90s pop effortlessly – Zoomer-Siamese Dream. Clanton built on the success, kicking off his own festival, which sold out within hours (and saw him perform with a broken leg), and branching out with a hilarious VR-liveshow-podcast. And none of it is ironic – it’s all heartfelt and genuine love for music, kitsch-aesthetic and pop culture.
It’s no understatement to say that Ooh Rap I Ya is one of the most anticipated releases of 2023 among certain circles. Five years in the making and preceded by two instantly iconic singles, it was meant to be the crowning achievement of Clanton’s tenure as an indie darling, and bash in the door for a bright future, similar to how Mac DeMarco was suddenly recognised a decade ago – which also means there’s a lot of weight this record has to bear. But even outside of this context, it’s immediately clear that Ooh Rap I Ya is, indeed, spectacular.
Leaning deeper into the 90s textures than ever before and fully committing to the full length of an album, Clanton has fashioned his most convincing and nuanced record so far. This starts with his loving embrace of boyband postures of lead single “I Been Young” and extends itself all the way throughout the constant warm tone of his processed beats. Led by summery synth tones, the album creates a psychedelic vision of 90s pop culture that never existed quite like this, similar to a dream of MTV the dreamer tries to grasp in the first minutes after waking up. An alternate reality, which cannot be embraced once it has materialised, caught in amber.
While less ADore and Loveless-inspired than its predecessor, which married “To Here Knows When” and “Waiting”, Ooh Rap I Ya‘s songs still remain hazy. Closer “For You I Will” is a slowed down, epic siren song that hypnotically spirals itself into oblivion. “Everything I Want” explodes with its gargantuan keyboard sounds that paint over Clanton’s voice and the beat, erecting crystalline towers in an endless digital landscape. “Punching Down” is an acid-tinged banger that hints at Mercury Rev, while “You Hold the Key and I Found it” embraces kitschy flutes to conjure a strangely compelling tropical ambient ballad.
And it can’t be stressed enough how charismatic, euphoric and epic lead singles “Justify Your Life” and “I Been Young” are; somewhere left of Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”, Aphex Twin’s “The Waxen Pith”, George Michael’s “Father Figure” and Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry’s “7 Seconds”. But where these songs embodied a sense of darkness – pregnant with the foreboding anxiety prevalent in the Prozac-fuelled Generation X – Clanton chooses to house his tracks in a utopian Fantasia, where his voice leads as a moral compass and his vibe exists in the realm of broken down VHS-tape re-recordings.
In other words, the one-true Vapor King has extended the size of the bubble-kingdom he’s created for those like-minded to his vision of a space that detoxes the mind – no, the world! – and crafted a pop-cultural vortex that never was cut short by post-9/11 pessimism; where Moby’s “Porcelain” never became uncool but only rose in stature; where the Backstreet Boys were awarded the revisionist perspective their female counterparts have enjoyed for most of the poptimism era; where irony is absent and in its place is pure, unadulterated joy and excitement at art that is vibrant, colourful and candy-sweet.
A counter to the apocalyptic cyberpunk realities often prevalent in vapor-narratives, Ooh Rap I Ya has the aura of some liquid drug that float listeners to endless pure shores, where the alternative would be to jack in and lose yourself to the Matrix. The virtual, Clanton theorises in a way, is an opportunity for shared consciousness instead of isolated gyromancy. What could be more necessary or more optimistic in the cruel hot summer of 2023? Brazen and charming, it’s the album of this summer – there is no alternative, as somewhere, some kids in tie-dye shirts carry it around and play it to their friends, leaving their phones behind to watch the sun set over the sea, dreaming of the 90s that could have been: Lisa Simpson’s summer of ’97 and Hackers 2. As the warm rays of the dying sun graze their faces, things still matter.