Dubstep’s continuing relevance and innovation has been one of the most notable music storylines of the past half-decade. There are plenty of reasons for its vitality, but Martin Clark recently suggested that one of the most recent breakthroughs for the genre was made with a trio of Hyperdub singles in late 2007 and early ‘08. What united Zomby, Quarta 330 and Sara Abdel-Hamid, a.k.a. Ikonika, was their affinity for 8-bit fluorescence, a surprisingly bright corner turned away from the dark, murky back alleys of Burial or Hyperdub head Kode9. It’s been interesting to see what happened in the interim: Zomby’s Where Were U in 92? became the commonly accepted go-to jungle throwback. Quarta 330 all but went silent. Ikonika kept things interesting with a few singles last year and has followed up with a timely debut full-length. She’s supposed to be on the boil here, and the idea of a recognizable female dubstep producer, on a superficial level, seems like a great step forward for the style in and of itself.
Thing is, I’m not convinced that Contact, Love, Want, Have is particularly good. Part of it is that there seems to be an accidental quality to her entire presence on the scene, from her signing to Hyperdub to the press surrounding the album to the music itself. It’s not that she doesn’t know how to play her instruments — Burial doesn’t either, for instance — but that it sounds that way, the cluelessness with which she creates. There are fleeting moments where she appears competent, like she’s as clever as she thinks she is (“Fish” is beautifully atmospheric; “R.E.S.O.L.” has a memorable synth hook copped direct from your dusty NES; “Red Marker Pen (Good Ending)” is a subdued high-note to end on), but more often than not it sounds like she’s combining either the standard 2-step snap with a half-baked synth loop or another off-kilter funky rhythm that’s even less sensible. She insists that she’s a “risk” and that she has “no rules.” On a track like the cluttered first single “Idiot” or filler track “Heston,” it shows.
It’s not just the accidentalness that offends, though. It’s also the brash confidence in the rhetoric and full belief in the boundary-breaking creativity of these songs that leaves a great deal to be desired. Witness the passion: She wants ‘dumb’ and ‘clever’ to bump up against each other. She wants to look up from the decks and see her audience dancing and crying. She wants to make the machines emote. These aren’t impossibly lofty goals, but how can you expect your audience to take all that seriously when you found four-word magnets stuck together in a bag and decided to call your full-length introduction to the world after it? She wants to believe that if she loves the movement (or her own material) enough, it will make her better by default. Passion alone isn’t enough, though. If you have no rules or framework with which to work, you’re not going to get anywhere. “Idiot” was a working title because it “worked with the wiggle and stomp of the tune.” That’s the most appropriate title on here. Some are great and some don’t make any sense? I sense it’s all happenstance cloaked in high-minded Hyperdub futurism.
Which is ironic, because there is no future here. The crux of the problem is that Contact, Love, Want, Have is not a challenging listen insofar as it does not challenge any particular dubstep conventions. But worse than that, it’s not particularly fun. The bouncy 8-bit synths reject deep repeat return trips rather than draw you in. Forget about immersing yourself in this album – there’s no use trying to get into something with no depth in the first place.