Son Raw is a master of the Steely Dan chord.
Swindle has always had ambition. From his earliest self released mixtapes to his instrumentals for Butterz to his globetrotting collaborations, he’s shown love for grime’s radicalism and for more established jazz-funk traditions in equal amounts, endeavoring to merge roughneck beats to sophisticated instrumentation and interesting chord changes. The rub however, is that this is a tough high wire act to pull off: it his best, Swindle is effortlessly funky but his music has also shown some growing pains, veering too far into either crowd-pleasing wubs or noodly musicianship depending on the track.
On No More Normal however, he gets the balance just right, laying out his full talents across a succinct 32 minute suite that’s brimming with well placed guests and tight, soulful musicianship. It’s also music with a message, rejecting the pessimism and negativity engulfing the western world in favor of an outreach to our common humanity. Sure, the cynic in me recoils, but you can’t deny that the world could do with a little optimism.
Crucially, No More Normal is where Swindle’s ambitions meet a cast of collaborators willing and able to help him reach the heights he’s always aimed for. Most notable are the vocalists – poets, emcees and singers – whose positivity and calls for greatness feel just as essential to Swindle’s message as his chord changes. In a time of insecurity of Brexit, and when Black British youth are being ever increasingly demonized by the media, the album speaks to its audience’s potential, efforts and perseverance, a contrast with the grim negativity pervading scenes like drill, but also the judgy wokeness of some American alternatives. Crucially, it all comes from a place of understanding, with emcees like P-Money, Ghetts and D Double E speaking from lived experience.
Of course, a Swindle album will always be about the music first and foremost, and No More Normal is undoubtedly his best work yet, with his small army of musicians and arrangers proving just as essential in this regard as the vocalists are to spreading his message. Mostly leaving electronic dance forms behind, the album is full of strings, horns and other organic textures, all girded by steady rhythms at the intersection of grime and hip hop. Drill Work notably updates a hi-hat heavy triplet pattern into an orchestral work out, a perfect canvas for Ghetts to speak on his experience on road.
Elsewhere, the album focuses into a warm Californian funk that will be familiar to fans of Kendrick Lamaar or Anderson Paak, and it’s to Swindle’s credit that things never feel derivative. He’d acquit himself nicely next to any US heavyweights and I can think of more than one American emcee who’d benefit from working with him for their next project.
It all adds up to a resolutely self-confident album that knows certain of the mood it’s going for. Certainly, No More Normal isn’t the record for listeners seeking grime at its darkest or most minimal, and those averse to jazz funk at its most sunny and positive probably won’t make it past the album’s introductory poem. For anyone looking for a record combining electronic music’s most forward thinking rhythms with the musical complexity of jazz music’s recent resurgence however, there’s hardly a better test case.