In 2010, when international mogul Simon Cowell bolstered his roster of frazzle-haired frumps and opera-mangling boy bands with Hackney-born grime-pop producer Labrinth, feathers were ruffled. Yet in his Tinie Tempah collaboration ‘Pass Out’, Labrinth had marked himself out as a producer who could create commercially successful urban music that fizzed over with new ideas. Given that in the US, producers like Kanye, Pharrell and Dre generate more cash than the GDP of many small countries, taking a chance on a UK production auteur seemed a commercial no-brainer.
This debut album certainly sees Labrinth playing up to the auteur role. Each song contains more ideas than most UK urban artists’ entire back catalogue. House-pop breaks into guitar solos, jungle beats segue into smoky, Nat King Cole-ish piano-soul and Megadrive-y synth chords morph into a nu-metal-esque chug. But too often, this album is a bewildering mix of influences. Many a song is marred by curious vocal breakdowns that channel both chamber-pop and ‘The Frog Chorus’. On ‘Last Time’, synth string stabs jar against filtered keys that swirl like a washing machine gone haywire. ‘Express Yourself’ decides that where NWA went wrong in their song of the same name was to forget to plonk a clunky, lumbering digibeat atop the ‘Charles Wright’ sample. And ‘Sundown’ weaves the ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ refrain of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ into a post-dubstep noodly rawk tale.
There’s no faulting the ambition behind this maximalism, and there’s enough chart-bothering saccharine pop here to repay Cowell’s commercial gamble, but sadly, there’s nothing of the calibre of ‘Pass Out’. A European artist to rival Kanye? Not just yet.