Album Review: Jean Dawson – Pixel Bath

[Self-released; 2020]

We’ve seen hip-hop artists aplenty dip their toes into the waters of emo, punk rock, and even bedroom pop, and then vice-versa. This cross-genre exploration has yielded some of the most intriguing visionaries – most notably Frank Ocean – but also some of the most clumsy and overhyped fads – think Lil Peep, Post Malone, and even worse, Machine Gun Kelly. Thankfully with 24-year-old Jean Dawson, we don’t have to be subjected to the latter; his undefinable alternative hip-hop sound is refreshing and exciting, and he could well be on his way to becoming a bonafide star. 

In a year where polarization, divergent opinions, and extreme maxims have ruled supreme, Dawson’s overlapping, post-genre approach is an overflowing spring that comes to fruition on his proper debut album Pixel Bath. A mature and much more focused follow-up to his 2019 mixtape, Dawson’s latest outing dabbles in a bit of everything – bedroom pop, pop-punk, industrial rap, and even glitch-pop – and the final product is a boisterous marvel to behold, touched through and through with deep emotion.

It is no coincidence, then, that Dawson’s debut is reflective of his life lived within the gray, indefinite areas – of not fitting in. Literally born in an environment most in-between – Tijuana – Dawson is a Mexican Black man with a wealth of experience to pull from. So, without surprise, he challenges the uncertainties of his own life and the world-at-large by reflecting this betweenness in his art, and makes his most pointed statement yet with Pixel Bath, his self-described “soundtrack for a Black coming-of-age film that never ends.”

It begins with “Devilish”, a story of expectations, not of promise, but of pessimistic presuppositions tied to the plight of the Black man. Sneeringly singing on the track, “Like my dad’s hand when I lose my shit… The monster underneath your bed… that’s me / The shadow on the other side of the room.” Dawson is at odds both with the world and with himself as he tries to push his demons far away and deep below. These monsters exist in the shape of trauma, disenfranchisement, and generational struggle.

Dawson’s demons show their faces without warning throughout the majority of this record. On the A$AP Rocky-featuring “Triple Double”, we see Dawson plagued by hyper-masculinity and autonomy: “And I’m a ball hog, I ball hard / I’m all net / I’m all boards / I’m no boy… I do better on my own.” But this mind-numbing braggadocio is complimented by a slice of humble pie on following track “Shiner”, where he screams in his rapped rasp, “Mad tough, got my ass beat more than once / Black eyes, match my Raider hat / yeah, all of that.”

The exhilarating and propulsive glitch-pop of “Dummy” threatens to deepen Dawson’s self-reflection into a pit of doubt and darkness. Though the production sparkles and drives listeners to dance, Dawson seems hopelessly crestfallen, but when you look deeper into his words, the inevitable optimism that comes with being a young rising star surfaces, as he frames the calamity around him as an opportunity come out on top. “I’m not going to sleep to wait if I die,” Dawson sings in a soft falsetto shrouded in electronic blips and fluttering drums, and while this is a point of slight resolve, Dawson’s fears and anxieties still haunt him. 

On the guitar-driven “Pegasus”, our emotionally complex rapper continues to tread a fine line between fear-induced confidence (“I know they want me dead / Black bull, I don’t fuck with feds”) and living dangerously out of paranoia (“I drive with a .45 in my pants / I would’ve been a Crip if I’d have followed dad’s footsteps / no press, I don’t play pretend”). While he walks this tightrope on “Pegasus”, listeners also glean his aesthetic and sonic intentions along the way; aside from the apparent dashes of pop-punk guitar and chorus, Dawson sings he’s “Black Björk, my Lord, I’m a little left” – so left (weird) in fact, that he “make thе thugs love Simple Plan.” Though infectious and easy to blast out loud, the halfway mark sees “Pegasus” abruptly morph into a woozy trap song where Dawson’s voice is pitched more than a few octaves lower – these kinds of abrupt shifts keep us on our toes, always unaware of what’s coming next.

Whether it’s encountering death as an “all-black angel with a halo” on the brooding industrial banger “06 Burst”, or playing hide-and-seek with the grim reaper amidst the shimmering guitar pop of “Clear Bones”, Dawson thrills with his teeter-totter fluctuation between self-destruction and safeguarding from a world that is dead set on killing the Black man.

No matter the song, Pixel Bath will have listeners will be doing one of two things: a) crowd killing, headbanging away feverishly, or b) listening attentively to the pains of a young man who, despite his incredible talent, is still at odds with what society has already predetermined for individuals who look like him. But it is during one song where both cathartic acts may occur. Pixel Bath‘s lead single, “Power Freaks” is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic tracks of the year, and invites us to witness him in this turmoil while also making us look around for the closest thing to break. Experimenting with different vocal styles – a haunting R&B croon and a passionate scream that scratches like Denzel Curry – Dawson wears the music he listened to growing up on his sleeve. There really is no artist as young as Dawson who understands and is able to express himself with such unique style and aesthetic – it’s why he was hyped as the ‘next big thing’ in the first place.   

At this point, you might be thinking, ‘contemporary R&B, reverbed guitars, sad boy clout, and A$AP Rocky – can you get any whiter than that?’ Your fears are valid; though Jean Dawson’s sound is his own, he also makes the exact type of music that’ll get eaten up by the Hypebeast white boys that gentrified Brockhampton, Injury Reserve, and the likes of Tyler, The Creator over the years. But if Pixel Bath proves anything, it’s that Dawson is much more than style— “he’s all gold, no glitter,” as he announces on “Triple-Double”. Though this project’s sights and sounds can be a bit boyish and boisterous, there are enough cross-genre gymnastics and self-awareness here to keep nay-sayers at bay for a while. What we have here is an outrageously bright talent who renders substance with style, all while encumbered with fears and thoughts that he’ll take to the grave.