For the Love of the Mixtape: On Khan Solo’s ‘Stargirl’

Ben Grenrock takes a look at Khan Solo's 'Stargirl.'
By    August 14, 2017

khan solo

Ben Grenrock knows misery comes before music.

“Now the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art…you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is delicate thing.” –Rob (Jon Cusack) in High Fidelity, on how to make a relationship-defining mixtape.

Even in a culture that values the sardonic over the sentimental, the kind of amorous mixtape Cusack’s character famously describes will never go out of style. As long as people fall in love, as long as they endeavor to relate that love with music, and as long as High Fidelity remains easily streamable, the relationship-tape with endure.

Songs, even albums, are adequate to capture a moment. The infatuation. The break up. The ill-advised ex-sex. But a mixtape (or burnt CD, shared playlist—format it how you will) can relate a relationship’s scope by distilling the varied experiences of artists across time and culture into a chorus of perspectives. A compilation’s strength in numbers legitimizes the sonic love story—a trope that’s almost inevitably hackneyed self-indulgence in the hands of a single artist.

Yet, with his debut record, producer Khan Solo set himself precisely that perilous task: create a time capsule documenting the relationship that defined his love life. Stargirl is the resultant beat tape and its twenty-three tracks ratchet the listener in, out, and into love again, following a fraught, though familiar, timeline. But don’t let the saccharine high-concept, the name, or the album’s freshman status fool you into fits of premature scoffing.

The young producer has managed to not just tiptoe around triteness, but to obliterate it—dissolved completely in a barrel of bubble-gum colored acid or honesty. By allowing his original work to flirt with being a Cusackian “compilation tape” itself, by mastering the, “subtle art…of using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel,” Solo turns gimmick into gold.

Stargirl opens with the above High Fidelity quote. Taken in the context of beatmaking, it sounds like “Rob” is speaking as much about sampling as he is about collecting other people’s songs onto a tape. In this way, the quote is the perfect double-edged mission statement for how Khan Solo escapes the pitfall of cliché gaping below such an enterprise. Solo samples with a dexterity beyond his monogamous discography; everything from ’60s soul grooves to Anticon glitch-mage Baths gets sliced and diced with sagely precision to create beats like Matisse cutouts.

But the bulk of the emotional storytelling on Stargirl is done by sizable and often unaltered chunks of classic love songs and cinematic dialog, either plopped into a tracks’s midst or existing in a space hewn specifically for them. Thus, Solo delivers a love odyssey that feels universal—a story directed by him but told by a pastiche of characters—striking a careful balance between playing D.J. and J Dilla.

Stargirl follows the chronology of Khan Solo’s relationship. So “Track 01” presents us with the first time Khan Solo saw his future lover. The song begins with a dreamy composition that captures all the slow-motion movie magic you’d expect from such a moment. Then there’s the sound of a cassette being inserted and, after some brief fumbling with the tape player, fifteen seconds of Mary Wells’, “You Beat Me To The Punch” (1962). Wells’ words very literally tell what happened next while the doo-wappy innocence of a bygone era communicates the emotion: his shyness was subsumed when the girl he was staring at approached him. Solo’s initial beat then drops back in over “You Beat Me To The Punch,” and the two individual elements become inseparable as the new lovers.

This type of delicate dance between snippet and sample continues as the relationship blossoms, implodes, and is rekindled. The lazy tenderness of the slide-guitar sparkle on “Track 03” is swiped away to let Jimmy Stuart’s love-drunk offer to lasso the moon from It’s A Wonderful Life take center stage—because no better moment of romantic hyperbole exists. The whirlpool of depression “Track 8” spins, has sucked in Audrey Hepburn quotes from various films and Solo arranges them to communicate a breakup’s self flagellations. 

This isn’t the only technique used to tell the story of Stargirl. “Track 07” samples Sufjan Steven’s “Seerer’s Tower” in a much more traditional way, harnessing the singer-songwriter’s crystalline melancholy and letting it melt into drums and horns like a mausoleum carved of ice.  But well-crafted as the beats may be, to see the record’s most effective tool in action you’ll need to zoom out and go macro, to look at the album as a whole.

If after listening to just the songs embedded in this review you aren’t grasping just how special the tape is, a lack of context is the reason why. Go to Khan Solo’s bandcamp and listen to some of these tracks in their entirety and in order. Stargirl’s narrative is its heart, and like any good story, excerpts can’t hope to capture its true power. Seamless transitions between songs control momentum and flow rather than just tying them together aurally. They make the record a page-turner instead of one extended song split during its quieter moments. These songs work in conversation with each other.

Stargirl is an album that requires the removal of the cynicism goggles that are more or less a prerequisite for surviving in this epoch—and I know, I know, in 2017 it feels closer to Lasik than eyewear, but it’s still worth a try. The record tells a personal story with many voices, negating the ego of the artist to shift focus to the multitude, asking listeners to embrace the chemical explosions often curbed to fit into our culture. All the #feelz you unironically, unhashtagably felt when you first heard Diane Keaton sing “Seems Like Old Times” in Annie Hall. What you’ll admit into a lover’s ear as the bedsheets cool, but might not admit to yourself.

Take some time to feel. At least the duration of these twenty-three beats. Think of it as subversive, if that helps. And show underground desperado Khan Solo some love while you’re at it. He’s certainly shown it—in all its potent mutations—to you.