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Kelman Duran - 13th Month Music Album Reviews

The Dominican producer pulls inspiration from a South Dakota Indian Reservation.

The first time the Dominican producer Kelman Duran was asked to DJ a party, he opened his set with “Suicidal Thoughts,” the harrowing closer from Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die wherein Biggie rhymes about wanting “to just slit my wrists and end this bullshit,” then ends the song with a loud gunshot. As an integral part of Los Angeles’ renowned Rail Up parties, Duran’s sets have turned decidedly more festive, drawing from the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, while making those riddims through a haze of reverb and delay. With his 2017 debut, 1804 Kids, Duran showed a knack for low-slung reggaetón, with “6 De La Mañana” becoming a party anthem of sorts. But with his follow-up, 13th Month, Duran forgoes crowd-pleasers for the most part. You can still hear dembow, hip-hop and dancehall—even bits of South African gqom and Lisbon’s batida—but now Duran shoves them far away from the sunshine and good times to the most bone-chilling and emotionally overwhelming space he can find, namely a South Dakota Indian Reservation.

13th Month draws on time Duran spent on the Pine Ridge Reservation amid the Lakota Tribe making a long-form video piece about the lives of the Native Americans trapped on the reservations. While the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock made the national news, life on other reservations was just as grim and impoverished. That Duran is no longer concerned with the dancefloor is evident from the opening moments of “13th Month in 3 Movements.” With a title that nods to both the lunar calendar of the Sioux and a classical composition, the song ranges over 10 minutes, setting an Auto-Tuned voice crying out: “Man solid as a rock/You can move me” atop minor key washes, submerged bass throbs, and an ambient backdrop that seems to be crumbling beneath it all. It takes nearly seven minutes for a dembow riddim (slowed down to a sluggish thud) to emerge out of the haze. Rather than suggest a party in the wee hours, Duran now turns his attention to the desolate dream-states of that time, “13th Month” as likely to bring to mind the likes of William Basinski and Burial.

Burial might be the first name that springs to mind on these sprawling tracks, in that he too daubs disembodied voices across a widescreen soundscape, cloaking everything in reverb and crackle, weaving together such disparate rhythmic elements to create an evocative whole. Even when the rhythms become more pronounced on the 14-minute “CLUB 664B” Duran keeps the uneasiness intact. That telltale dembow riddim flickers in and out of the mix, never quite bringing the beat back, but instead becoming another ambient texture along with pedal steel, sampled strings, and snatches of everything from baile funk to key disseminator of reggaetón DJ Playero. Duran toggles between Puerto Rican reggaetón singer Yandel’s chorus of “Agárrame fuerte y no me sueltes” (Hold me tight and don't let me go) and an echoing of “dura” (harder) before it fades away entirely into a passage of birds and Auto-Tuned voice. Divorced from reggaetón’s libidinous desires and instead slotted into this eerie space, these voices turn into a desperate plea, increasingly isolated and estranged.

The tracks that follow these two grand statements hew closer to the template Duran used on 1804 Kids, speeding up or screwing down reggaeton, gqom, kuduro, hip-hop and the like, offering up more DJ-friendly tracks. There’s the drilling beats of “TU MUERE AQUI (Intro),” but they scan less as sweaty come-on than robotic barks stripped of all their warmth. On “lento x katana 1,” Duran distorts vocal chants until they are as flinty as the beat itself, making it into another percussive element grappling with the contorted dembow riddim writhing under it.

On the penultimate track, “gravity waves II,” Duran puts down a minor key melody that verges on the queasy, adding Biggie’s vocal from “Suicidal Thoughts” to it. It soon gives way to a Lakota Elder talking about tribal suicide rates and the voice of Attawapiskat First Nation Elder Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, who since went viral for telling off a journalist. It’s not an flourish of juxtaposition so much as it is Duran’s attempt to draw a parallel between the wretched conditions in inner-city ghettos and life on Indian reservations. It leads into the album’s sorrowful closer, “13th MONTH II In 3 Movements,” weighing down an uplifting reggae lyric until it turns into a plaint: “Sad to see the old slave mill/Is grinding slow, but grinding still.” Wordless hums, sped-up chirps, and choirs all bubble up across the piece, finally landing on a voice quivering at the words “to cry” as it all fades away. Despite the gains made in our society and attempts for equality and inclusiveness, Duran lays bare the social plagues still haunting us. The party is still there, but Duran also keeps close those dark feelings that we also seek release from on the dancefloor.

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