Beyond the Grey Area: Kaytranada’s BUBBA

Michael McKinney goes in on the Montreal producer's latest.
By    January 28, 2020

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Michael McKinney is laying back, eating poutine.

As complex and layered as it can be, Kaytranada’s music is also devilishly simple. For several years and several more piles of records, his work almost always speaks to the power and allure of a strobe-lit dancefloor. Born in Port-au-Prince but long based in Montréal, the producer moved his party to festival stages with 2016’s 99.9%, a record stuffed with slick basslines, shuffling drum kits, and neon synthesizers. Featuring a who’s-who of indie rap & R&B vocalists, the guests rarely grabbed the spotlight. That felt by design. Kaytranada’s chief interest was clearly soundtracking late and loud nights; everything worked in service of that. Released three years later, his follow-up BUBBA continues the party that 99.9% started without changing direction or breaking a sweat.

Not to say that’s a bad thing. On BUBBA, Kaytranada takes the components that made 99.9% so magnetic and finds a number of new grooves. The keyboards form a pulsing foundation, whether in a few held tones or chunky accompaniment. The drums seem to skip, with just-jarring-enough off-beats to keep the patterns interesting. The basses are jumpy and energetic, hitting registers and rhythms that wouldn’t make much sense on paper but offer nice jolts of energy in practice. Each track shifts the ratios a bit without upsetting the balance too much; the result is a series of nightclub fillers that work as well at 10 PM as they do during the afterparty.

The strongest example of this approach—taking a few ingredients and endlessly reconfiguring them—may come in the one-two punch of “10%” and “Need It.” The former backgrounds its in-the-pocket drums and instead uses mewling keys to form its tonal foundation, leaving Kali Uchis and an electric bass to duet. It turns out that’s enough. Uchis marries an elegant delivery to glow-up lyrics, and the bassline is satisfyingly chunky. “Need It,” on the other hand, is powered by a punchy and off-kilter drum kit and an endlessly arpeggiating string line. Together, they lend the track a muted chase-scene energy. Masego, with his ever-accelerating raps and head-voice singing, further darkens the mood without leaving the dancefloor.

Those tracks are demonstrative of another important thing about BUBBA, too: it’s expertly sequenced. Nearly every track here is a surefire party-starter, and they often tend towards a similar simmer, but they’re organized to highlight their differences rather than similarities. Instrumental cuts act as interludes of sorts, offering pauses between vocalists’ turns at the mic, and the featured artists draw sharp lines with each other. There’s “10%” and “Need It,” but there’s also the two that follow them up. “Taste,” featuring the Nigerian-American R&B act VanJess, is effortless and smooth, in no small part thanks to the duo’s breathy vocal runs and Kaytranada’s glowing keyboards. The next cut – Estelle’s “Oh No” – is filled with synthesizers that dodge the rhythmic pocket ever so slightly, to thrilling results.

At its best, BUBBA can feel like a killer late-night open-mic jam session, with people hopping on stage as they please and the producer pushing himself into new corners.

The session doesn’t grow sour until the end. The Pharrell feature, on album closer “Midsection,” is a weirdly uncomfortable and labored way to close a record designed to fill dancefloors. Kaytranada’s clipped guitars don’t catch as well as the rest of his grooves, and Pharrell’s kitchen-sink approach to vocals here doesn’t do it any favors. But by that point in the record, anything less than good-to-great will read as a dip in quality; it just serves to underline how strong the rest of the material is. Even the most immediate tracks—“Go DJ,” with an elastic and devil-may-care SiR backed by a hissing drum kit and pulsing keyboard, the aforementioned “Need It,” and the dimly-lit hip-house of Mick Jenkins’s “Gray Area”—house vocal tics and drum hiccups that make the tenth visit as rewarding as the first. 

At its worst, BUBBA is merely a solid dance record. But for the majority of its run time, it is excellent, effervescent and joyous dance music perfectly calibrated for just about any situation you can throw it at. Its fusion of pop, house, R&B, rap, and house is familiar, but that’s only because Kaytranada already paved his own lane. This time around, though, he makes the ride even smoother with a veteran’s sense of pacing and knowledge of exactly where to put a kick. The drums are punchy, the guests are ebullient, the band is in lock-step but laughing along—what is there to do but dance?

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