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Mr. Tophat - Dusk to Dawn Music Album Reviews

The Swedish producer and frequent Robyn collaborator offers an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes.
Hardcore Robyn fans already know the work of Swedish producer Rudolf Nordström, aka Mr. Tophat. He co-produced “Baby Forgive Me” and “Beach2k20,” two of the gorgeous, gently filtered house-pop tracks from last year’s Honey; his own 2017 release Trust Me, a three-song, 35-minute EP of throbbing, desaturated grooves, featured Robyn throughout. His latest solo release, Dusk to Dawn, is an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes. More melodic than the distortion-warped A Memoir From the Youth, two and a half hours of mostly chill, mid-tempo house conceal interesting moments within slack expanses. At its best, it’s a triple-album endurance listen that rewards partial concentration; at its slowest, it’s an illustration that Tophat’s signature long-format tracks don’t scale.

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MIKE - Renaissance Man Music Album Reviews

MIKE - Renaissance Man Music Album Reviews
The Bronx rapper’s second album in two months has the intimacy of voicemails to a close friend and the warmth of Lil B in his most generous BasedGod form.

Music argues for itself as it plays: This is how you should listen to me. You can tell from how it’s mixed and presented in your speakers how it hopes to be experienced, and MIKE’s Renaissance Man does not want you to play it loud. Splitting production duties with Daryl Johnson, the Bronx rapper muddies the textures of his songs so that the drums feel like drawn breath and small sighs resound like snare claps. MIKE’s own voice is often hard to pick out among the sampled, pitched-down voices moaning in the background. These are deliberate choices, and they lead you to clap your headphones tighter and concentrate. This is music of secrets, internal monologues, intensely specific revelations.

The album follows 2017’s May God Bless Your Hustle and last month’s Black Soap, fleshing out a body of work that presents itself humbly on the outside but swells with fierce pride and self-love within. The video for Renaissance Man single “Time Will Tell” says it all: MIKE peers at you from beneath his bedsheets, a self-made fort that you’re invited to enter if you accept him. Under here, you’ll find a teeming kingdom, a world of sighs, small cries, and under-the-breath mantras, where small gestures can turn superheroic.

MIKE’s flow remains a thing of wonder, for those who stop to notice it. His rhyme schemes map back onto themselves in a gratifying way reminiscent of Earl Sweatshirt, or MF DOOM, or Reddit threads of things fitting perfectly into other things. One small stretch, for illustration: “My feet on the ground but my head over heels/The beast on the prowl for his bread and his will/No lease on my doubt, I’m expecting a thrill.” But he buries these verses inside the music, seemingly unconcerned about whether we notice their intricacy. What he wants us to feel is the size of his heart, and the pain and empathy filling it. He is the spiritual heir of Lil B, in his most generous BasedGod form, the truth-speaker radiating magnanimity from his pores.

For all the twisting-vine paths his verses can take, the album opens with his friend Joygill Moriah just talking, on “Negro World (Intro),” while the track warps and curls around him like a burning Polaroid: “It’s the mental game that matters the most. Knowing where your seeds is planted. Where you keep the water at.” He adds, “For what it’s worth—thanks. Thanks for not giving up. Thanks for not holding back.” It’s not clear who he’s talking to, but he makes us feel how much it matters.

The album feels like a series of voicemails to close friends—in fact, “Goliath” concludes with one such actual voicemail. “On the streets is the worst way to hear about you/And that’s only cuz a nigga really care about you, dude,” he mutters on “Sidewalk Soldier.” There are glints of confidence and bluster—“I made it this far from ducking all your feedback/You ain’t done enough to see that”—but the dominant gesture here is the outstretched palm, the overwhelming message: “Come and spread your arms if you really need a hug.”

The production glimmers in place. You can stare into these tracks and feel your eyes dilate: The synths on “Decision Tower” mimic the gentle ripple of a pool filter. Nothing here insists, nothing shouts, nothing demands. You can often lose track of yourself listening to the album, in the best possible way. MIKE sums up this effect nicely on “Time Will Tell”: “Don’t really like attention, but I bring it around."

Even live, MIKE insists on this disarming intimacy. I saw him on a bewildering bill where he opened for the indie rock outfit Amen Dunes; it was just him and two others onstage. He encouraged the audience to dance, launched into a song, but stopped a few seconds in to observe, “But y’all ain’t dancing, though.” Then he shrugged and plowed forward, giving the moment all he had.

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