The rise and rise of HAAi
Pay close attention and you’ll hear R&B singer and 90s pin-up Adina Howard all over Walton’s ‘Beyond’. More specifically, it’s her 1997 hit Freak Like Me that’s cut up, pitched around and scattered across 13 tracks that cherry pick elements of grime and funky, Detroit house and techno, and comes together like a schoolgirl’s pop scrapbook. The idea of an actual physical journal covered in magazine clippings of photos, song lyrics and ticket stubs might sound archaic, attributing the habit of fannish collage to a specific gender even more so, but it’s for those reasons that ‘Beyond’ presents an intriguing cross-section of contemporary pop cultural interaction.
Walton would have been six when Freak Like Me came out, and is probably somewhat divorced from the impact Howard’s steamy image would have had on an old millennial audience. Yet, here she is informing the frenetic pace of a record that convulsively jumps across genres, ideas and samples; a globetrotting exploration into a “sound of everything” by a 22-year-old producer from Manchester. Guttural vocal chords, children’s laughter, and something that could perceivably be a sped-up sample of a cat meowing bounce across syncopated beats, a sneeze, a squeak, a babbling baby, vinyl crackle and several “pops”, all of which transpire within the first 30 seconds of Frisbee. And, yet, somehow it doesn’t feel cluttered. Instead, Walton manages to compress all that is invigorating about those odd sounds, those transient sonic anomalies we all obsess over, into an entirely cohesive latticework of samples that manage, unbelievably, to keep the thrill going. You can hear parallels in the asynchronous polyrhythms and fractured vocal samples of Baltimore’s Co La, and California’s SFV Acid, the creepy pop dissections of Slava and, of course, the ubiquitous contemporary fascination with R&B.
In fact, Mary J Blige gets pride of place at the head of ‘Beyond’, as an excerpt of her spoken word poem Forever No More is stretched out and contorted over the spiralling synth decay, bottomed-out bass and simulant vocal chorale of the album’s title-track opener. While a sample of Howard’s “making love on the dance floor with my clothes on” – pitched down and queerly masculinised – turns up in the accordingly-titled Love on the Dancefloor and again in Every Night. You & Me features a sluggish melisma that’s made all the more weird and uncomfortable by the repeated interjection of a high-pitched giggle on top of it.
In a Pollockian approach that prioritises movement, textures and tangibility above all else, ‘Beyond’ functions on the instinctual and makeshift rhythms of a certain culture of pop vandalism from which Walton emerges. This style presents an intriguing picture of modernity, where the crackle of vinyl and the “woah woah woah woah” of a wobbly bassline can appear together alongside the heavy breathing of what sounds like a dude (but who knows these days anyway, right?), in Grit, and an unrecognisably distorted dub-sounding sample can be lowered deep into the mix of City of God, while still sounding like it’s meant to be there. That’s because, as strange as it might sound in relation to the past, this is now the present, and Walton announces himself as its peculiar product.