Jonah Bromwich has been dogged by long-time comparisons to James Franco.
Thanks to the good folks over at Blind I for the Kids, I’ve just started listening to yet another perfect summery slab of music. Made by the unfortunately/hilariously named Modlee and Vlooper (Modlee is the singer, Vlooper the producer), the EP is called Sunwalk and makes good on the promise of its title. It’s an incredibly smooth, soulful collection of songs, with nuanced production underlying Modlee’s strong, controlled voice. Though the album is slow-moving, it never becomes tedious or thick, moving fluidly from one track to the next with perpetual ease.
The only problem? Sunwalk very badly wants it to be an Erykah Badu record. Four of five tracks sound like they could be excised fatty material or discarded sparring partners from Badu’s near perfect New Amerykah albums. Fans of those records will instantly recognize, for instance, that the Sunwalk song “Doo” has rhythms and chanting that are nearly identical to the beginning of “The Healer” (which also starts with the syllable “doo”). They will also be familiar with the high pitched rapping that leads into “Pon DI LUV” and the mellow, simmering tones of ‘Dancin.” A lot of critics would hear these songs and call them rip-offs, affronted by their bald resemblance to songs from two of the best albums of the last decade. And though that wouldn’t be an unjustified reaction, it’s ultimately unfair.
You’ll remember that Action Bronson, rap singer, had a similar problem until recently. Many dismissed him as being a lesser, paler shadow of Ghostface Killah. But Bronson eventually transcended that specimen pin by becoming a very good rapper, with a huge personality of his own. On Blue Chips he stated outright “Don’t ever say my fucking music sounds like Ghost’s shit” and Bronson fans started to use the line as a mantra: no matter how much the vocals and food references remind one of GK, Bronson has developed to the point where only the most close-minded listener would peg him as a lesser copy of the original. He has developed a unique musical persona.
Phillip Roth wrote out Henry James stories to learn rhythms and Dylan basically pretended to be Guthrie before he became himself. Anyone who’s seen Ray will remember that Charles started out as a kind of sound-a-like professional. Point being: emulating one’s favorite artist is a historically recognized method of getting one’s own artistic voice off of the ground. And in the internet age, when artistic development (at least from a musical standpoint) is near impossible to undertake privately, it makes sense that we’re getting so many projects that are great “but” sound a lot like artist that came before. It’s fine and sometimes even necessary to acknowledge the profound influence that an established artist has on an up-and-comer. But it’s a silly reason to dismiss good music or promising artists.
“All Matter” is the first song on Sunwalk. It’s a cover of an old Bilal track but it’s also the most original sounding song on the record. While the Bilal version is emphatic — a showcase for that singer’s range — Modlee and Vlooper pull things back, deviating from the original to create a mission statement for their own sound. Modlee uses a voice that sounds more her own than the Erykah renditions, deeper and more relaxed with fewer fluctuations and vocal tricks. The beat too, is devilishly calm, with some clever rising synths and a steady beat. If Modlee and Vlooper start to make original songs that sound as good as this, their Erykah fixation should become a moot point. And, as long as the duo doesn’t sell these songs to Volkswagen for an indie kid commercial (or to anyone else), they should feel comfortable doing whatever they can to improve as artists.