RL Grime is known as one of the fathers of trap, if not the messiah.
He belongs to a heritage of electronic production known as trap - not to be confused with the Southern-birthed hip hop subgenre “trap” (popularized in modern times by artists like Migos and Future) that is a mostly Afro/ghettocentric movement centered around drug-related storytelling. RL Grime’s trap, sometimes referred to as EDM trap, is almost the opposite – it is nearly always an entirely instrumental track, and made nearly always by a white/Euro bedroom producer. Both genres share some aspects though – the use of rapid hi hats, the 808 bass, the drug culture (except with middle-class whites); instead of the vocals and the lyrics as the centerpiece, EDM trap focuses on the instrumental.
Trap very much originated as a sort of remixing fad; the subgenre’s origins are generally agreed upon to be pioneer Flosstradamus’s iconic 2012 remix of Major Lazer’s “Original Don”. It was all about taking an already popular song and making it more intense through honing on the bass drop and giving it an overall fresher, more “unleashed” flavor.
RL Grime grew to superstar popularity through many ways – disc jockeying at places like the Boiler Room, publishing mixes online (his annual Halloween Mix saga, which is on its sixth volume now, is far and above the most celebrated trap mix series of all time) – but mainly through producing remixes of already popular songs. His biggest hits include remixes of Rihanna’s “Pour It Up”, Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction”, Kanye West’s “Mercy”, Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa”, and The Weeknd’s “The Hills”.
On top of his revered remixes, he is responsible for some of the biggest festival bangers in trap history: “Tell Me” with What So Not, “Waiting” with What So Not and Skrillex, “Infinite Daps” with Baauer, and the motley crew of top trap hits from his first album VOID like “Scylla”, “Kingpin”, “Valhalla”, and arguably trap’s true genre-defining anthem, “Core”. He is characterized by his hypertextured melodies, vocal mixing and integration skills, and his atmosphere – dark and menacing, à la Halloween.
Trap was in some ways an offshoot of dubstep: still obsessed with bass drops, but less dubby and more variability in structure and tempo – trap feels a lot more mobile, and in that way more thrilling, than dubstep. Trap has become the umbrella term for a whole horde of distinct sonic witchcraft – from the glassy, textured synthscapes of Flume to the bass-heavy detonations of Boombox Cartel to the minimalist, industrial fireworks of TroyBoi, trap covers a lot of ground.
While trap has been mostly confined to the underground, it did spend some time in mainstream pop chart notoriety; 2013-2014 saw big Billboard hits in Baauer’s “Harlem Shake”, DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What”, and Martin Garrix’s “Animals”.
The ideology of trap music is represented within the structure of a trap artist’s oeuvre: all singles. Generally, there is no concept, or sense of symbolism occurring within any song – listeners seek a fresh, satisfying drop that will give their brain an intense, emotional reaction. Therefore, artists release almost all their songs as singles – there is no need for an exposition, a rising action, or a conclusion; it’s a style of instant-gratification and endless climax. While it is popular to release an EP of a few popular singles, many highly-regarded trap artists have never produced a single album (see: QUIX, Vincent, Ekali, graves), because especially when you are participating in a world so underground, and on a platform like SoundCloud where it is all about streams – and something like an interlude would not get many replays - there is not much of an incentive to produce an album besides sheer creative ambition.
Of the few trap albums out there, many of them, like TroyBoi’s Left Is Right and Hucci’s 404, are just compilations of hard-hitting singles. Only a few, like Flume’s Skin or What So Not’s Not All The Beautiful Things, feel like traditional albums.
RL Grime’s NOVA is a combination of both strains. While each track feels almost like a classical symphony – a royal, polyrhythmic composition that could stand on its own – everything is cohesive, and there are highs and lows like a three-act film.
What is especially interesting about NOVA is how akin it feels to RL’s last album, VOID. Not just syntactically (NOVA versus VOID, as titles) or thematically (NOVA is the yang – a bright release of power, he describes it as a star expanding “endlessly until its light is all you can see” – to VOID’s dark, sinister yin) but sonically; a lot of the tracks on NOVA, with their grandiose, unstoppable vigor, could sit alongside ones on VOID - especially considering how evenly matched they are, genre-wise; the mix of classic trap, future bass (low frequency oscillating-saw synths, a la Flume or Whethan), and drum n’ bass is numerically similar on both records.
While it is admirable that he was able to stay so consistent with his previous, highly doted-upon disc, it is also frustrating – there is not so much a sense of regression, but a sense of lack of progression (like he is still stuck in 2014), that brings down NOVA. That is not to say that the album is not full of trap masterpieces – it is, and as the genre itself has drifted and dwindled since its peak a few years ago, NOVA feels like an ode to trap and all its compartments.
The opening track, “Feel Free”, is one of those masterpieces. It begins with a pattern of exotic, tribal-tinged chime percussion that sets up an air of playful mystique; when the consonant synths kick in along with an up-pitched, female vocal chanting “I won’t be afraid”, the tone of the album is set: jubilant, boundless energy. The bass drops like a spaceship blasting off into outer space: it is the nova, a star that precipitously increases in brightness. As the nova eventually returns to its original state, so does the song: after the second drop, the track fades with a gradual, peaceful 30 second outro.
One of the more compelling aspects of RL’s music is how it commands your emotions; his sound is almost the complete inverse of ambient: it is thick, accessible, and filling. Listening to “Feel Free”, and the following drum n’ bass-infused track “Shrine” (featuring great vocals from pop singer Freya Ridings), it is hard to feel anything but a sense of endless rising, of being carried away into the heavens by the interminable synths and operatic vocal reverberations. NOVA is an objection to nihilism: it represents a life full of the truest, purest, most radiant light, with everything full of meaning and emotion.
And while this does not really mean anything by itself, it is a vision. RL Grime describes the music-making process for NOVA as a sort of “visualization,” in which he thought of “places and moments” in his head and ascribed sounds to fit them.
Sometimes what makes a track stand out - especially in the ocean of trap where the waves of bass and melody congregate as one gushing stream in the ears of a listener – are the little off-bits: the intricately glitched-out samples, the unconventional slices of percussion; lead single “I Wanna Know”, for example, begins with a distinct, polished-yet-lo-fi bit of percussion that immediately brings about an air of nostalgia. The evocative beat is then complemented with a dreamy, pastel vocal performance by synth pop singer Daya; even though the lead spirals into a trademark RL buildup and drop, the track feels refreshing because of the mood established in the beginning.
Another track, “Rainer”, contains a minute-long plus intro subsisting of almost entirely a washed-out, humid synth fluttering back and forth cautiously around the low end, which is alluring in itself but also establishes an atmosphere of awe and impending intensity: the soundscape is then fully realized with stuttering vocal chops and pounding drums that surround the listener, climaxing in a Flume-like bass drop with a repeating kick that marches on top of a rapidly oscillating, crystalline synth, like a glass wall that is getting punched over and over again but refuses to break; as it is the penultimate track, it probably symbolizes the total and complete ascension of the nova. In this track, RL Grime’s pacing skill is at play – what initially seems like a sluggish, slow-developing synth turns into the perfect foil for the drop’s raging flutter.
The problem with having a 15-track album of the most hot-blooded, heart-rending electronic music conceivable is that it becomes too much after a while – corny, almost, even with RL’s skillset.
Luckily, there are a few breaks in the scheme. On “Pressure” – the most hotly anticipated track of the album (first teased in his 2017 Halloween mix) – RL drops the bass harder than he has ever done before. The title describes it perfectly: it is pressure, real tectonic pressure, the feeling of a digital sledgehammer coming down like the Hand of God and shattering the ground all around you into pixels; there is even a cheeky distorted cough effect before each bass section, as if the Church of RL Grime is laughing at you from the heavens (or hell). The track is an interesting pivot away from what he has usually been producing and towards what the entirety of trap’s sound is generally shifting to (from producers like Boombox Cartel, REZZ, and TYNAN): more industrial, gritty, bass-heavy dingers. “Pressure” provides a relieving amount of darkness amidst the almost blinding mass of light.
Another one of the more original numbers on NOVA is “Shoulda”. While it is not exactly the type of sonic devastation that exists on “Pressure”, it is not a source of light, either; the track begins with a repeating vocal “In my,” that is pitched to match a shade of low end synth that slowly rises in volume like a cloud closing in overhead. The melody is layered in nostalgia and the sense that time is disappearing with ever passing drum hit, complemented by equally desperate sounding vocals; the storm swells and eventually releases into a tsunami of glassy, dewy-eyed emotion, as the vocals chant “I shoulda let you go” in sync and the synths undulate like time spiraling away, forever.
Most of the other instrumental-focused tracks – like “Era” and “Reims”, in particular – suffer not just from hints of unoriginality (“Reims” is a boring, slightly more vibrant version of his 2016 “Aurora” hit and “Era” is another luxurious, empyrean symphony – a tired model, at its point in the album anyway) but actually from the album’s rollout method. Since RL spent the amount of time he did on the album, he let a sizable portion of the tracks loose as singles to keep his fans entertained. What started off as striking tracks would then go on to be mixed into the sets of other popular artists, and made into dozens of new tracks themselves via the art of remixing (the “Reims” flip by Enschway & LUUDE is better than the original); these tracks suffered from being overplayed months before the album even came out.
On top of these instrumentals, RL assembles a parcel of pop and rap-pitched tunes, like the aforementioned “I Wanna Know” with Daya and “Shrine” with Freya Ridings tracks. The only other pop-specific track is “Light Me Up” starring Miguel and Julia Michaels, which would be a perfect midnight set closer – dripping in emotion both lyrically “So baby light me up / You can breathe me in” and sonically, with hypnotic vocal performances and a melody that vibrates with color like a kaleidoscope of love – except for the fact that, ironically, there are a bunch of ideal set closers on NOVA: “Shrine”, “Light Me Up”, “Reims”, “I Wanna Know”, “Rainer” – all would foster sufficient-enough happy vibes to close a trap concert. It is unfortunate that some of RL’s best work on this album is – seemingly inevitably – getting lost in itself, because of how magnificent it is.
Except for the rap-trap tracks, though.
Of the four songs with hip hop features – “Undo” (Jeremih and Tory Lanez), “Take It Away” (Ty Dolla $ign and TK Kravitz), “OMG” (Chief Keef and Joji), and “UCLA” (24hrs) – the middle two are the only ones worth talking about.
While both “Undo” and “UCLA” showcase RL’s immaculate soundscape in force – especially the cosmic Travis Scott Rodeo-core breakdown in “Undo” around two minutes in – there is nothing especially provoking or absorbing enough in the vocal performances or backing instrumentals of either to sanction much replay value.
“Take It Away”, on the other hand, immediately captures your attention with what sounds like an astral siren – a croaky, alien synth that waves up and down like a flag in the wind. And then Ty Dolla $ign’s gritty, humanite voice intrudes into the channel with “We just landed in your city” which enhances the feeling that these sounds are from some extraterrestrial otherworld. While the drop on this track is nothing new (standard future bass flare), what is remarkable is RL Grime’s mixing abilities.
Too often on trap and rap crossover tracks does one half of the ingredient (either the vocalist or the instrumental) overpower the other (see: Ekali and Denzel Curry’s “Babylon”); it is incredibly hard to build a song in which both components work together and drive each other forward in an original and gratifying way (see: Flume and Vince Staples’ “Smoke & Retribution” – the gold standard for a perfectly engineered rap and trap mashup). The way that RL manages to utilize the textures of all the different components in this track is exceptional, and turns what would be a somewhat insubstantial future bass song into an intergalactic adventure.
RL does this even better on “OMG”. Although the lyrics are silly, if not trite (“Flexin’ on my exes, oh my god”), it is not about the lyrics but about the voice as an instrument itself. Joji’s hook is ripping: it sounds like a more menacing, unmitigated version of Travis Scott’s “3500” hook. In that song, the voice and the backing appear separate, detached – as if Travis is riding the musical wave. In “OMG”, Joji is the wave: the instrumental covers his voice like a set of armor, declaring him as the dark knight of RL’s sinister trap kingdom. Chief Keef is also great in this track; the instrumental tames down appropriately to match his ominous hum, creating an uneasy atmosphere (as well as serving as an apt contrast to Joji’s bursting hook that emerges once again after Keef’s verse).
The result of all these enjoyable tracks – titanic banger after titanic banger – is that the album sort of buckles under its own weight. That is not to say that almost every track is not a masterpiece in its own right; RL Grime does an excellent job at keeping NOVA mobile by switching up the styles constantly, à la future bass here, drum n’ bass there, some darker, some lighter; in such a hefty mishmash it seems almost required for a few to get blown over as collateral.
But it does also seem like RL experienced a bit of tunnel vision while producing this album; combining the pressure he must have felt to put out great content after such a long time and the willfulness required to make something that is, evidently, so consistent with what he had originally envisioned (or at least the “core ideas” are, as he said in an interview) suggests that from the get-go, he did not feel the need to stray far from the (his) path. NOVA feels like a callback to the golden age of trap (2013-2014) because, essentially, it was made for the golden age of trap.
And electronic trap has altered dramatically since 2014, enduring through new, interesting sounds and sonic experimentation (and massive bass drops, like “Pressure”). While NOVA is a graceful, cinematic experience, the entirety of its soundscape is (mostly) overplayed: if it does not feel boring or safe yet, it will next year.
It will be especially interesting to see how RL Grime produces going forward. He has enough of a following to continue putting out his masterclass, “movie soundtrack” trap, and remain as a headliner for concerts – but if he wants to garner an expanded audience (and make a significant statement regarding his artistic potential), he will need to innovate.
Despite a few of the tracks feeling watered-down, or too over the top, RL Grime is at his best form in NOVA – unfortunately, it is a couple years too late.
TOP: “Feel Free”, “Shrine”, “OMG”, “Shoulda”, “Pressure”, “I Wanna Know”, “Rainer”
BOTTOM: “Undo”, “Reims”, “UCLA”