DJ Snake Shows Plenty Poise and Little Progress on ‘Carte Blanche’
French electronic producer DJ Snake is well-versed in the multitudinous hot spots that emerge and fizzle away abruptly under the EDM banner. After garnering praise for his role in Lady Gaga’s 2011 “Born This Way,” he caught the rising wave of dubstep, and the tangential frenzy, joining with Diplo and crew, and becoming emblematic of a short-lived era with such monumental singles as 2013’s “Turn Down For What,” with Lil Jon, and “Lean On,” featuring Major Lazer and MØ. With so much hype already built up, it becomes a feat to merely stay afloat, which is essentially what Snake managed to do with his 2016 debut “Encore.” The follow up, “Carte Blanche,” finds him rehashing much of his old formulas at a time when the tricks of the trade have lost their lustre. A dazzling selection of diverse guest features can’t quite compensate for the tired, stylistic complacence. That said, the tracks are a showcase of masterful production, with plenty of thrills throughout, making for an altogether enjoyable listen.
Electronic music is largely about buildups and releases, and DJ Snake wastes no time in this regard, beginning the album with epic intro “Butterfly Effect.” It’s an appropriate beginning in that it anticipates both the bountiful energy that runs through the album and a chief drawback that plagues it. After the build, break, and drop, it’s difficult not to look back and wonder if all there were all along was a lot of hot air. At any rate, Snake builds on the momentum of the bombastic opener, and rages on with “Quiet Storm,” for which he joins forces with UK dubstep artist Zomby. This is full “brostep” fare — we’re talking Skrillex six or seven years ago. One has to wonder whether tracks like this have been sitting idly since then. Still, the hyperspeed midsection adrenaline rush of helium voices, crescendos, and an electronic drum stampede is worthwhile. There’s an admirable wealth of detail, and sounds that evoke b-boy maneuvers at triple speed in strobe lights. Snake dwells in this space for a bit, continuing on “When the Lights Down,” which particularly stands out for how unmistakably European it is in its dance renderings. There’s spectral Daft Punk in it, but then, there’s crunk as well. At moments, it also nods to the works of avant electropop Japanese bedroom producers.
“Recognize,” featuring Majid Jordan, is an instant jam, making much of its impact from a single, strategically placed note. It’s the first track that feels more like a proper song than a glorified beat, for better or for worse, although it’s still a song in the sense of, say, a more chart-geared Skrillex production. The falsetto vocals with painfully trite lyrics function as an effective admonition regarding the cringe-inducing potential of deep platitudes fit to trendy music. “No More” is a sleek cut with streamlined, soulful vocals from Zhu and some vaguely London flavor to its sharp, skeletal beat. Then comes the sure highlight of “Made In France,” teaming Snake up with frequent collaborators Tchami, Malaa, and Mercer. A hype buildup erupts into a sparse, slithery, highly impactful beat, reduced to all that matters, with an infectious synth line that recalls the stylings of UK dubstep artist Joker, alongside early ‘90s hip-hop calls of “Hey” and a tinkering pulse that recalls the Prodigy’s 1997 single “Funky Shit.”
The inevitable trap moment comes in “Enzo,” and Snake goes all out, recruiting Offset, Gucci Mane, and 21 Savage. There are stuttering hit-hat triplets, lyrics about benzos, designedly shabby chorus calls, and some slightly off-kilter sound design that gives a quirky, sci-fi funk feel. For “Smile,” Snake trades in the gloss and finesse that characterize most of the album for the altogether rawer sound of an impromptu mixtape. It somehow turns out a fitting match for the R&B stylings of featured singer Bryson Tiller. The lovely “Try Me,” featuring fellow French producer Plastic Toy showcases DJ Snake at his best, outshining anything else on the record. A little over halfway, there’s a horrid discomfort when the track threatens to build up into the grotesquely belabored, archetypal “drop,” although in a noble gesture for the world’s wellbeing, it takes a more discreet direction.
“Locos Contigo” is an entirely fresh cut, the first full foray into Latin territory. Over a minimal beat with a looped sample and syncopated percussion, J Balvin and Tyga take turns singing and rapping. This is only setting the stage, however, for the unhinged Latin explosion to come. For “Taki Taki,” Snake welcomes Selena Gomez, Ozuna, and Cardi B. It’s likely the most striking collaborative number on the album, with each featured artist putting a signature stamp on the track, and making for a lively, colorful extravaganza. The final installment of the Latin triptych comes in “Fuego,” Singer Taina’s contribution is rather generic, with the ubiquitous “Eh” interjections, at the expected intonations, strategically peppered throughout — not to mention the most predictable title imaginable for a Spanish dance song. To its credit, however, the chorus, in which Taina brandishes the title, is undeniably catchy, and Sean Paul’s distinctive voice on side duty effectively glues the song together.
The appropriately titled “Magenta Riddim” splits the differences between bro step and reggaeton, with some Middle Eastern synth melodies thrown in for good measure — a perfect hodgepodge for the likes of Ultra Music Festival. “Frequency 75” sounds like it could have been lifted directly from the Prodigy, launching you suddenly in the punkier end of ‘90s rave culture, before recklessly darting two decades back to the temporal center of the album, for more twiddling of thumbs in post-dubstep drivelry. “SouthSide” is a high octane blast for raging toward the stage, acting a fool on the dancefloor, and dodging paramedics. DJ Snake is absolutely owning it on this track, and it’s simply too much fun for its lack of originality to hold it back. There’s a well-situated calm after the storm in “No Option,” on which Snake recruits Burna Boy for a swaying, reggae jam that recedes from the flash and fury, and settles into a subdued groove, keeping the party going from a healthy distance. Finally, “Paris” pans out from the scene in an elegant, closing tapering of energy, although singer GASHI dampens the affair with the laziest lyrics ever.
“Carte Blanche” effectively encapsulates the glaring problem with trendiness. It comes in the dreadful aftermath, when the parlour tricks have started to look a bit sad. Some styles are more immune to this than others, and dubstep is certainly not one of them. That said, DJ Snake has enough variety in his pallette to make for an engaging set of songs, sequenced in a way that shuttles through styles with bombastic bursts and precipitous drops, still flowing somewhat elegantly. While it’s unlikely this album will yield a hit on the scale of “Lean On,” there are several contenders. Each of the guest features is striking and substantive, and Snake molds his sonic excursions around the variety of colorful voices, for a listen that is passe, but nonetheless riveting.
“Carte Blanche” is available July 26 on Apple Music.