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1010 Benja SL - Two Houses EP Music Album Reviews

On his debut EP, the Kansas City singer-producer shows off both his extraordinary voice and his remarkable facility for wringing maximum sentiment out of the most negligible nonsense phrases.

There are a few definitions for the word boofy. In Australian slang, it’s used to describe those who are big, dumb, and strong. It can also refer to the volume of a hairstyle or the puffiness of an object. It's not far from the Britishism “bouff,” which describes the accumulation of wealth (i.e. the “Bouff Daddy” as popularized by the grime rapper J Hus). But for 1010 Benja SL, “boofiness” means something altogether different—and it’s a very serious matter.

In the the Kansas City, Missouri, singer and producer’s breakout song, boofy is a sensation between love and jealousy (“Boofiness/Half in us/Often makin’ walls small”) that makes romance rich with contradiction. It’s also a very silly sounding word. It’s hard to keep a straight face when saying it; even harder to make it the subject of something so sincere. But Benja does wondrous things with nonsense language. His extraordinary voice, thin and raw and redolent of Timberlake, pours a titanic amount of emotion on “Boofiness.” Accompanied by bouncing piano and chorus-line handclaps, cursing the “bougie buddy bitches” he must vanquish, Benja turns a ludicrous word into something pretty beautiful.

Benja’s voice makes all that possible: The set of pipes on this guy is shocking. Precise and powerful, he can extract a wellspring of feeling from the goofiest of lyrics. Take, for example this bewildering turn of phrase on “Tragic X,” a highlight from his debut EP, Two Houses: “Precious face, wholly emotive, yeah/Shoo, shoo, shoo, little mosquito/Little nightmare, don’t wake me.” He glides through the line with confidence and verve, stretching syllables to their limit, doing vocal backflips before your ears. Only listening to the song again is it possible to glean the strangeness of his seemingly free-associative writing.

This linguistic playfulness is just one part of what makes his music so interesting. His sound is both erudite and buggy, flickering wildly between neo-soul, boom bap, grime, garage, and ambient collage, sometimes within the frame of a single song. He’s also, as you might expect, “mysterious”: Biographical details are scant, besides the fact that he grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and has a loose affiliation with the New York-based label UNO, which has released music from Arca and Mykki Blanco. This all lends Two Houses an undeniable—if somewhat predictable—allure. (Another enigmatic pop artist? You don’t say.)

Looking past the mystery, Benja’s debut still ranks among the most promising new projects of 2018. There’s a streak of bona fide mad genius running through his production technique: On the EP’s opener, “Fairwater,” the grand horns and colossal backing vocals strike the perfect middle ground between Timbaland and Elysia Crampton. In “Easy Going,” the contrast between an imperial march with a flute-like instrument is striking. And on “Tragic X,” the song morphs and mutates and grows so many times—from a wave of silvery synths to a whispered interlude to an earthshaking finale—that it becomes a little world onto itself. It’s all held together by his remarkably expressive, agile voice. (His awe-inducing humming, part Kid Cudi and part choir of angels, is particularly resplendent.) While Two Houses is by no means perfect—the wooden and very conventional Auto-Tune on “Hadit” and the generic rapping on “Only One” are the most glaring missteps—it still does a great job of previewing the scope of Benja’s skills. Each song presents a little doorway of possibility, offering a hint of what might come next. It’s clear that he’s on the cusp of doing something stunning.

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