Spanning 22 tracks, this ambitious project from Philly-based hip-hop producer Savan DePaul is a cross-sectional showcase of his producing abilities. He seems to present it as more of a compilation than an album, which is a smart move, considering the sheer amount of music here; the “compilation” label gives him a unique opportunity to go where he pleases with his sound, and to show off exactly what Savan DePaul’s music is capable of. Despite its length, the stylistic distinction across the collection begs to be taken track-by-track. Opener “Cicadas ‘97” begins with a spooky sample from what sounds like a nature documentary, fading into an off-kilter mostly-instrumental that captures DePaul’s general approach on this compilation. There is a central looping sample, dressed in a few effects and slowed down, decorated by a few virtual synths and a prominent beat. Digitally lo-fi production that gives the music a very insular, neon-lit, sometimes even claustrophobic atmosphere, and the result is psychedelic, circular sonic stew. It works particularly well on “Cicadas,” smattered with chittering percussion, setting the song pleasantly askew. “Broken Boy Blues” features some of the smoothest production on the album, with a moody, shuffling beat, and a sparse, foggy melody. Scattered across the album are other examples of DePaul’s beatmaking aptitude: “ten93” is laid back and sunny; the dubby “Stoking the Memory of my Neptunian Ice Queen” has great, spacey vocal production; “Ratatat GrÜves” is hypnotically sluggish, with a classic-sounding guitar sample reminiscent of J Dilla. There’s an abundance of fantastic beats all over the album, and his sampling is consistently creative and impressive.
The musical style of “.cranium.scatter. Vol. 2″ is, appropriately, kind of scattered, and some of these forays work better than others. “Cilia Funk” is a house jam that only kind-of works, suffering from a sense of directionlessness, chugging along without developing in any significant way, not quite interesting enough to warrant the repetition. “Mannie Yunk” and “Soul Distortion Beta” are borderline vaporwave, and both stand out as some of the highlights of the album- “Soul Distortion Beta” in particular is a gorgeous bit of sampling genius. Unfortunately, it seems like there are just as many standout tracks as there are skippable tracks. “20.wav” is a vague, extended lounge-like sample with an awkwardly lurching beat and a very repetitive guitar line. “Ouroboros, the Instrumentalist” is simply the instrumental of an earlier track on the album, which would be a more understandable addition to the compilation if it wasn’t one of the less interesting songs on the album, with production that sounds a bit like the air has been sucked out of it. An ancient Chinese instrument sets a dramatically different tone on “The Guzheng’s Intentions,” a bit of a shocking stylistic switchup, as the pleasant instrumental is peppered with drums that sound haphazardly patterned, lending a bit of a silly tone to the track. DePaul is aware of how stylistically diverse his music is, and seems to be embracing it as a creative choice, but he often tries to do too much. The overabundance of ideas, while exciting, tends to weigh the album down, and stretches a defining sound a bit thin; even his own descriptions of his sound don’t necessarily match the final product. He describes himself on Bandcamp as a “sample-wielding beatsmith,” which seems accurate; but also as a “fledgling bedroom pop singer,” which doesn’t seem to me to have any basis on this album. He also uses the phrase “porno-house provocateur,” an image backed up by the deliberately-placed parental advisory sticker on the cover, bordered by a superfluous additional label warning about “STRONG LANGUAGE” and “SEXUAL CONTENT.” Apart from the porn-sampling “Coital Rush,” there is little about this album that is explicitly sexual, or even sensual, no more so than many other hip-hop albums. Why does DePaul associate himself with “porno-house?” What about this aesthetic is so appealing to him, and does he intend to tap further than simply by name and direct sampling?
The least-effective stylistic mode of Savan DePaul’s music is consistently his rapping. DePaul’s lyrics are dense and flashy, packed with big vocab words and cultish imagery, but due in part to the tinny vocal production, as well as simply the unconvincing delivery of the lines, his verses are most often a bit awkward. In the brief appearance of his voice in “Cicada ‘97,” it sounds as if he intended to mix his own voice as part of the rhythmic texture as opposed to rap a verse, but the vocals are simply too dry and foregrounded, taking away from the otherwise psychedelic nature of the song. “Ouroboros, the Rhymer” is a mouthful of a song, dropping creative cannibalism references left and right, but the hook feels bloated and forced (repeating “portly form” is, in a word, unflattering). “Focus” similarly suffers from forced line delivery, as he tries to fit phrases like “in order to do so” into the hook; the same can be said for the insistent, slightly out-of-time refrain of “Septa 9 9 paycut” in the hook of “Septa 99,” a song that borders a little too much on preachy. DePaul is clearly not a bad rapper; his verses seem packed with meaning, but they simply lack the conviction and flow that they need. Reeling back a bit on how much he’s saying, and focusing more on how he’s saying it, would benefit the music greatly.
A trimming of the fat is, in general, what this album needed. Even if this was meant to be a “compilation” as opposed to a traditional album, there’s just too many non-essential tracks to guarantee repeated front-to-back listens. But if “.cranium.scatter.” was truly intended to be a compilation, a showcase of his ideas, then it’s certainly successful, even if only about half of it succeeds; what it shows is that Savan DePaul has no shortage of ideas, and certainly has the skills required to shape those ideas into interesting songs. It shows that with a bit of streamlining, trimming, and maybe a clearer idea of his aesthetic intentions, his music could very well end up exactly as mind-blowing as he wants it to be.
- Tons of ideas
- Solid beats and creative sampling
- Psychedelic production
- Some directionless songs
- Occasionally awkward rapping
- Unfocused aesthetic