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Review: Kingdom, 'Tears In The Club'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

The artwork to Kingdom's <em>Tears In The Club</em>.
/ Sam Rolfes
Sam Rolfes
The artwork to Kingdom's Tears In The Club.

For the better part of the last decade, Kingdom — Los Angeles-based producer and DJ Ezra Rubin — has been a key figure in club music's revision of sonic and social norms, a generational update on dance-floor freedom that's also had an affect on the aesthetics of R&B. Having established his sound through a long catalog of singles and EPs, remixes and productions (not to mention, co-founding one of the most influential labels in contemporary nightlife, Fade to Mind), it's now intriguing to hear Kingdom create Tears in the Club, a full-length debut so long awaited that its existence is somewhat of a surprise. The environment in which Kingdom's been gathering his creative strength (massive sound systems; young, minority-heavy LGBTQ parties; a digital native's smorgasbord of post-jungle and ghetto-house dance-music) is diametrically opposite to the one in which listening to albums is a norm (cheap speakers, at home or in transit, no shuffle). Yet Tears in the Club is very much a unified work, not merely a collection of tracks.

Growing up in rural Massachusetts and moving to Brooklyn in the 2000s before decamping for LA in 2010, Rubin has long carried a torch for what critics crassly dubbed "mutant R&B" or what he's called the "fantasy of an imagined club." At the onset of the Obama administration, Kingdom's style was bridging two separately emerging club worlds: the post-dubstep, bass-heavy sound of crews like London's Night Slugs, and the largely gay and trans parties then creating a new wave of sonic futurism in the U.S. (New York's GHE20G0TH1K and LA's Wildness foremost among them). While Kingdom's hi-hats and beats were syncopating at light speed, the song parts focused on the interplay of bass and spare, barely-existing chords. Half a decade later, these are open fields for expressive modern soul singers like Kelela and Dawn Richards, Kingdom's best-known collaborators.

These are the productions that Tears in the Club builds on, but, as the title alludes, the album's themes don't just end there. Rubin is more interested in club headspaces than dance-floor moves. While the groove is Tears' bedrock — being a former drummer, every sound inside a Kingdom track serves rhythmic functions — it's more setting than purpose, evoking how Massive Attack use soundsystem smarts to build song-oriented frames and not just jams. The beats aren't the only elements here questioning a party's basic tenets. Neither the album's featured vocalists — two contemporary standard-bearers, The Internet's Syd Tha Kid and SZA, plus a pair of up'n'comers, singer Najee Daniels and the more hip-hop-minded Shacar — nor the sampled, looped, manipulated voices that are its prevailing melodic ingredients, engage with anything remotely ecstatic. Instead, they explore the historical melancholy and social elements that have been part of club-life from the get-go, the feelings that get lost when the club goes pop.

Tears updates that vibe with confessionalism and sonic designs that did not exist even a decade ago, the openness and despondent outlooks of millennial tensions, and the unabashedly synthetic noises that make the beat. It's up to the vocalists to frame the album's downcast nature. The beauty in SZA's two contributions — opener "What is Love?" and "Down 4 Whatever," a late-night grind about throwaway pleasures — could be philosophical examples of contemporary behavior, how private and surface emotions intertwine. Syd appears on two mixes of the same song, a diary-like account of depression, fame and desire called "Nothing," the original of which swirls the song's bleakness in hazy, drugged melody, and a closing "East Coast Club Mix" that divulges its darkness to a strip-club dance-floor. In-between, Kingdom makes beats to give this despair some context and hope: at times, it is with a yearning vocal flip ("Nurtureworld"), at others, with a beat construction so intricate and spare that the emptiness feels like longed-for relief ("Timex").

Often, the break from the foreboding is a result of Kingdom's sound selection and manipulation. There's one that is repeated in both "Timex" and "Each & Every Day," the latter an upbeat number built out of a deconstructed loop of Najee Daniels intoning the title. At first, the sample sounds like a stadium crowd in the throes of a frenzy; but as Rubin keeps shaping it, that crowd changes to resemble a gust of air rushing through the track. The measure sounds like a kind of cleansing — ashes to ashes, and whatnot. Under the circumstances, it is as though, after years of making tracks to free club-goers bodies, Tears is Kingdom's attempt to bring some knowing succor to their souls.

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