Skrillex, “Recess” (Big Beat, OWSLA)
Three and a half years ago, Skrillex released “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” the EP that would transform him from a onetime post-hardcore singer who dabbled in producing electronic music to the savior of dance music in this country.
Thanks to the Internet, Skrillex’s sound spread quickly, and so did his influence. His rapid rise gave American dance music something it hadn’t had in quite some time: a superhero figure. In short order, he won Grammys and had a relationship with a high-profile British pop star, and his half-shaved haircut became meme-worthy — all in all, a modern star trip.
What Skrillex never bothered to do on this journey is release an album. Now there’s “Recess,” which arrives feeling more like a checked-off item on a bucket list. The disc moves beyond the trademark Skrillex sound in small and sometimes meaningful ways, but it falls far short of upheaval. There is the usual annihilation: percussive synthesizers deployed with force on songs such as “All Is Fair in Love and Brostep” and “Try It Out.” These are kin to the sorts of industrial-scale tracks Skrillex built and maintained his reputation on.
But he adds a twist on this album. On “All Is Fair in Love and Brostep” and “Ragga Bomb,” he collaborates with Ragga Twins, the British vocalist duo integral in the 1990s intersection of rave, jungle and reggae. This is Skrillex nodding to his early dubstep and drum ’n’ bass roots or, more specifically, the roots of his roots.
He also wants to give a glimpse of what the next branches on the tree are going to look like, nowhere more clearly than on “Dirty Vibe,” a coproduction with Diplo that features naughty raps from the K-pop stars G-Dragon and CL built on a bed of quickly shifting vocal samples. Less successful is “Coast Is Clear,” an awkwardly casual soul-dance collaboration with Chance the Rapper and the Social Experiment.
When Skrillex attempts to do something similar to what other ambitious dance music producers have done — collaborate with signature singers — he generally falls short. Take the wasteful melodrama of “Ease My Mind,” which is built on a sample of “DJ, Ease My Mind,” by Niki and the Dove. That group’s singer, Malin Dahlstrom, has a textureless voice that doesn’t convey any tension, and Skrillex’s nominally Middle Eastern-influenced swirls feel tinny and frail.
Similarly, “Fire Away,” the album closer, features cloying digital vocals by Kid Harpoon that add little. But underneath, a different Skrillex is hiding. Strip away the words, and what’s left is, in essence, an elegant, calm techno number, one of the most mature things Skrillex has done.
The same juxtaposition happens on “Stranger,” a collaborative production between Skrillex and KillaGraham (of Milo & Otis), which has soft R&B singing by Sam Dew but a far more exciting beat. It’s the most logical step forward here, and also an outlier: five minutes of promise that render the other 42 minutes around it as little more than Styrofoam packing. So much for the album.
JON CARAMANICA, New York Times