Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
On his debut album 'Guilt Trips' Ryan Hemsworth is trying to make something that's more than the sum of its parts. A popular and idiosyncratic DJ and bootlegger – as well as a regular producer for rappers like Main Attrakionz, Shady Blaze (both members of the Oakland, California-based collective that was significant in the definition of cloud rap) and the earnest Deniro Farrar – he is now concerned with establishing himself as a musician in his own right, one with a sound that isn't subordinate to a rapper's persona or dependent on the song it contorts. It's a movement that defined his two most recent EPs 'Last Words' and 'Still Awake' and he pretty much succeeds in it: replacing block samples with original vocals, refining his sonic palette and maturing his sentimentality past novelty.
Hopelessly wide and teary-eyed, Ryan Hemsworth's earliest work filtered feelings through others but he's now using a more personal confessional style – though one that is still grabs for references, of course – exemplified when Baths sings to the object of his affection: “It's almost funny that you're still so cold/What are you, Taylor Swift?” in the interlude on Still Cold. There is obvious irony in Hemsworth's approach but he is generally, sometimes overwhelmingly, sincere: relating to wider pop culture laterally and taking things at face value rather than trying to find hidden truths. What used to be winking-sad nods to, say, Backstreet Boys or Max B become careful and instropective ballads on the album, and he gets rid of the majority of the borrowed scaffolding of the past.
That being said, the vocals commissioned for 'Guilt Trips' are as much of a symbolic upgrade as a stylistic one, and as accomplished as Sinead Harnett's contribution to the introductory Small + Lost is, it works more as an added texture to a track than a traditional lead. Of all the guests Tinashe (whose single Boss Hemsworth has remixed previously) stands out on the graceful One for Me, as does Lofty 305 – a singer, rapper, producer and artist from the eccentric Miami collective Metro Zu – on Against A Wall, his amateurish, yearning croon bedding with the close and warm production comfortably.
Emotional openness translates as technical naivety in much of the music, which is endearing at best and awkward at worst. It combines Hemsworth's most prominent influences indie and post-rock and contemporary hip-hop – expressed through soft-synths, breathy vocal samples and programmed percussion and heavily tinted by a nostalgia for gossamer pop and Japanese anime and video game soundtracks. In the instrumental section that makes up the core of the album tracks like Weird Life and Yaeko Mitamura is Lonely can soar or soothe with irrepressible, ebuillient melodies but the parts that are propelled by drums, particularly Happiness & Dreams Forever, tend to be clumsy and stiff, and everything is cloaked by a persistent cloud of echo and fuzz and held by the melancholic weight that anchors 'Guilt Trips'.
The overall tone is intensified in the final track Day/Night/Sleep System, a broken duet featuring Haleek Maul and Kitty – two young, off-key rappers who value coyness and angst as chief virtues. It's a simple but quietly effective method, and whilst the album maps a modest terrain it can strike some poignant notes – though it rarely develops to anything past that. It's an altogether forgettable experience, even if it means the world to Hemsworth himself.
Last Gang Records release ' Guilt Trips' on 22nd October 2013.