Labrinth Sets Contemplative Musings to Bright Buzzing Sounds on ‘Imagination & the Misfit Kid’
London’s Labrinth is a polymath of the highest rank — a bona fide singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. He originally envisioned a career spent mainly behind the scenes, tweaking knobs and polishing sounds in the studio. Things took a different road however when merciless critic extraordinaire Simon Cowell found himself enthralled by Labrinth’s performance, and signed him to his own Syco imprint. Labrinth’s 2012 debut album, “Electronic Earth,” peaked at number two on the UK album charts, and the artist has gone on to collaborate with such names as Ed Sheeran, Rihanna, and the Weeknd. He has spent most of recent years producing for UK artists such as Tinie Tempah and Ms. Dynamite, building plenty anticipation for the next long-awaited solo effort. Last year found him collaborating with Sia and Diplo in the supergroup LSD, on a generally underwhelming effort. Fortunately, his sophomore solo album, “Imagination & the Misfit Kid,” is well worth the wait. Described by Labrinth himself as a “story of when dreams meet business,” it’s a dramatic, sonically daring album that showcases him steering forward in splendor.
The introductory track, “Imagination,” places Labrinth’s sonorous voice over a dreamy soundscape that slowly builds to an intense climax of choirs and strings, then gently abates. It’s essentially a meditation on the titular concept, with all the markings of a concept album to come, as Labrinth muses, “I draw up Picassos / And spray paint Banksys.” This gentle reeling in promptly gives way to the infectious electronic madness of “Misbehaving (The Misfit Version.)” A sample of “ladies and gentleman, “ is repeated and clipped, setting off a surge of whirling synth bass with plenty bite. Labrinth bellows away in a blues howl, and the unique hodgepodge of aesthetics from different eras is immediately thrilling. Horn blasts, hushed, impassioned backing vocals, and some wild, unhinged, raucous guitar, suddenly slow to a lone vocal and a piano, whereupon Labrinth sings, “I love it when it goes my way.” In a flash, there’s an incisive shift back to a crisp beat with the vocal now pitched up, spliced, and sampled, making for a hyperactive pastiche, with all the bits concentrated and condensed for maximum, quick impact.
This straightforward, fun-loving ode to misbehaving gives way to “Miracle.” Having ostensibly got the mischief out of his system, our character finds himself sensing a void, singing of “just empty heads and lonely hearts.” It’s the first of many instances in which he ends up directing his confused lack of fulfilment to the heavens, this time asking,”Father, won’t you lend a hand?” Over filters and wobbly synths, Labrinth’s vocal builds to an epic chorus, bolstered by a horn section. He soars and bursts, and the music wreaks havoc, with gritty, distorted synth bass, sinuous, screeching guitars, and crackling drum machine punches. This is an absolute sonic riot, owing much of its force to dubstep – or more appropriately, “brostep” – elements, considering their lack of subtlety. Making a sound that came and went so quickly in recent history actually work is a considerable accomplishment.
Labrinth’s pleas continue, “Hey, freedom’s gonna make a stand / Heaven, won’t you lend a hand?” Sure enough, an offer of freedom comes, but not as you might expect. “Juju Woman” alludes in its title to the practice of witchcraft in Africa, which attributes magical properties to good fortune. Labrinth presents the type of vocal that can transport you to another realm. His tune, timbre, and inflections amount to something hypnotically evocative. In a rather overproduced album, his vocals are allowed to bear their slight, natural imperfections, which humanize and add personality. His words ring, “Money makes the world go ’round / Baby, let me set you free,” with the final syllable swelling and amplifying. “Dotted Line / Juju Man” takes this further, breaking into a beat of hip-hop, funk, Motown echoes, and hi fi electronic flourishes. For once, the production seems a bit too slick for its own good, although it’s still hard not to appreciate. It’s all perfectly catchy, and relentless, and wailing guitars add irresistible edge. Assuming the voice of his predatory financial suitors, Labrinth asks, “Don’t you got a family to feed?” and continues, “Martin Luther, I have a dream / I could put your face on a screen.” In the end, a sinister voice asks to sign three places, with the third and final gesture pitched-down to sound downright demonic.
“All For Us,” featured in the season finale of HBO Series “Euphoria,” includes vocals from the series’ star Zendaya. When she and Labrinth sing together, “Dreamers are selfish / When it all comes down to it,” it’s unclear whether it’s selling out or not doing so that’s selfish. On one hand, the immediacy of money and fame is typically considered as such. Then again, artistic integrity is, by its nature, a selfish concern. The lyrics also contain an allusion to Dylan Thomas’ ““Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Come the following song,“The Producer,” the dilemma becomes clearer, as Labrinth goes on to decry Hollywood phoniness and bemoans, “And I’m just the producer.” The track begins with a female voice speaking, “And they all lived happily ever after,” and it’s quite clear that her sentiment isn’t fully sincere. A beat trudges along to a grinding, distorted synth bass drone, leading into a blues-styled work song retrofitted for the present day. At moments, it gets seriously rootsy, with call and response vocals and intermittent murmurs of “Ah-mmm.,” juxtaposed with sharp electronic sound candy
“Something’s Got to Give” continues in this modern blues fashion. In a whole different approach from that of contemporary R&B; Labrinth fuses rather anachronistic aesthetics with strikingly contemporary ones, instead of updating old sounds according to common practice. This time, the production gets a bit tacky, conjuring technicians directing, “Insert next flashy sound here,” to which studio-happy upstarts hurl found objects through the speakers with gleeful abandon. Every nanosecond must be filled with a hypeman shout, a synth blurt, a guitar lick, or some other unnecessary nonsense. The ADHD overload can get rather maddening, and it’s simply not very tasteful. Lyrically, the song finds the speaker again growing disillusioned and evoking the supernatural, reflecting, “Oh, when you’re living on faith / Something’s got to give.” The following brief track, “I’m Blessed” extends the thought, with Labrinth’s vocoder-treated vocal very much in the style of James Blake’s self-titled album, and his transformed voice fitting the core idea.
Labrinth continues to cull sounds from all directions on “Like a Movie,” which mixes Chuck Berry-esque rock ‘n’ roll with goofy contemporary electronic instrumentation. There are trap fills and more firey guitar work, over a hard-hitting beat, and you have to credit him for the unique blend of styles. Next comes “Sexy MF,” a rather unbecoming outlier, as the overt advances of its lyrics are not very artful, and can come across as a bit cringey. There’s a fair amount to enjoy musically, however, with a Motown pulse, some surprising stops and starts, adlibs in which Labrinth sounds like Bowie, and little flourishes that this time add rather than obfuscate. “Where the Wild Things” rings like
a slow reflection after the party. When the beat hits, it packs a serious punchy, with a crescendo leading into an EDM drop, followed by bits of gurgling bass. It’s a massive head-nodder, and while this shtick is beyond tired, it’s such a powerful, immediate sound that it remains enjoyable when limited to moderate dosages. The song finds Labrinth sensing himself too far gone, reflecting, “ You can’t bring us back to earth / ‘Cause her poison’s got us in heaven.” This leads into “Mount Everest, in which he sings in a tortured voice, “Mount Everest ain’t got shit on me…’Cause I’m on top of the world.” With slightly unnatural forced stops giving an off-kilter feel, he hoots and shrieks, as if exorcised, creating a delightfully deranged feel — cinematic, and twisted, inspired, dark, and daring.
The short interlude “The Finale” is a triumphant pronouncement of revelation, in which Labrinth ponders where to go from the top of the world, and ends up again looking to the heavens. Finally, he brings the affair to closure with the string-laden, Sia-featuring “Oblivion.” Far more tender than the lunacy on “Mount Everist,” the song gives a sense of taking a breadth and a panoramic, reflective look. There’s more sharp percussion, with crackling sounds framing the musings in the context of a relentless, commercial stampede. Sia’s contributions are quite different from what you might expect – a spotlight set with a massive hook. Instead, she hovers in the background, her strained, dramatic, idiosyncratic utterances complementing Labrinth’s clear and prominent voicings, as the two resolve, “I wanna be, be in oblivion.”
“Imagination & the Misfit Kid” is an extraordinarily one-of-a-kind album. Among its chief attributes is the production, leagues beyond your typical mainstream fare in virtually any genre. Labrinth did begin as a producer after all, and this album shows the skill set he has honed. The sounds are intense, immediate, and overloaded, and while this occasionally gets both laughable and irritating, and it’s on the whole exhilarating. The album is also heavily informed by Labrinth’s gospel background, which makes its way into both the originally channeled blues influences, and the general thematic thread. The cohesive set of songs create an engaging dramatic narrative, and the rather open-ended finale suggests that it is to be continued. Judging from how this release shows Labrinth brimming with fresh ideas, and performing with passion and aplomb, it’s a prospect with promise.
“Imagination & the Misfit Kid” is available Nov. 22 on Apple Music.