All music has an atmosphere or a color about them, but in this current musical climate unfortunately most popular modern music is really washed out. The atmosphere that Music should convey has turned into the climate of “turn up.” It does not show any emotion or color, it just tries to get as loud as possible to distract those who listen to it. Now I am not saying that getting loud is a bad thing, but if getting loud is the only purpose the music has failed.
Classical music has always been better at storytelling because that is its purpose. Popular music can not tell a story like this, but it should at least convey some sense of atmosphere like this. So I want to talk about three people who I think really use atmosphere and color to the benefit of their music.
*SZA and Nature*
SZA’s music is very interesting to me on one hand it sounds very modern, while it also distinctive to her alone. The best image of what her music sounds like is a giant stone amphitheater in the middle of the woods with a large amount of wildflowers around it, along with a river in the middle of the ground. The river in this analogy is the bass, it feeds life to the rest of the music while also being an integral part of the whole. The vocals come from all directions smothered in reverb, but mostly they come from the center of the stage. The hi hats sit right behind her along with the snare. Everything else comes from the sides in the forms of synths, guitars, keys, and other such things, these are what happen to be the wildflowers.They introduce most of the color to the music and live and die by their association with the river. Many of her songs like “ICE.MOON” have a high lead lines that sound like bird calls.
This is where the atmosphere takes part, SZA’s music isn’t always as seemingly sunny as “Julia”. Or as dark and tense as “TERROR.DOME”, yes that is the actual title. Her sound has really developed from See.SZA.Run to Z. The atmosphere has changed from the weird drug fascinated “Crack Dreams” and “Once Upon a High” to the more complex “Child’s Play” and “Babylon”. The narratives are also much less superficial, She sings about her father quite a bit. “Babylon” specifically states “And I can't recall the last time I took love from anyone I called daddy, who's got one anyway? Not me”.
The production is fantastic on all three of her EPs and I am sure that aspect will continue on in her music. Songs like “ICE.MOON”, “Babylon”, “Julia”, and “Hiiijack” are just fantastic. The little guitar riff from “Warm Winds” also comes to mind because it is such a small part, but it adds so much to that song, It adds atmosphere to a song already brimming with it.
SZA references nature in almost every song, video, and record cover. In Warm Winds she says “I recall your soul had taste like Gardens, Flowers, (and) Warm Winds”. She asks multiple times for god to change her into a bird.
This fascination with nature finally made sense after I saw this interview. She states within “I have a really high interest in animal life.” This part of her personality shows in her music. From all the references, to the production, to the music videos, and record covers. You can tell she has a fascination with nature.
I don’t really have much more to say about SZA’s music. I love it, I love the production, I love the really layered vocals and the songwriting. I just really enjoy it and think it has more color, atmosphere, and personality than most modern artists.
*Tinashe and the Color Blue*
If I had to assign one color to the type of music Tinashe makes it is the color of blue. Her album titles refer to this color as well: Aquarius, Amethyst, and BlackWater. There seems to be this fascination with nighttime and thunderstorms.
The production on them feel like deep and saturated blues, there is not very much high end content. Most of the sound comes from basses, organs that are missing the highs, pianos smothered in reverb,and synths that are mostly mids. There are some exceptions of course like her most well known song “2 On” which was produced by DJ Mustard. Or her other club song “All Hands On Deck”which sounds very much like a DJ Mustard beat, but it has a synth that sounds similar to a pan pipe. On a side note that pan pipe is awesome, it is really odd and out of left field for something that is supposed to bang in the club. On Aquarius there is also “How many times”, “Feels Like Vegas”, and “Thug Cry” which don’t really fit into the palette of the rest of the album.
The majority or more specifically 12 of the 17 tracks are really atmospheric and heavy. They contribute this sense of weight and pressure that I think seems like an underwater research station. There isn’t a lot of bright colors and it feels solitary. Yet there is still diversity, the great intro track “Aquarius” is a perfect introduction to the sound of the album; It is a moody, stormy, and chilly track. While “Bet” is more energetic, it is still cloudy. The effects used on the vocals and the guitar solo at the end by Devonté Hynes, who is also known as blood orange, add a lot of depth to the song. “Cold Sweat” is tense and anxious, the chorus is subverts expectations. It isn’t large, it is slightly anemic and pointedly minimal compared to the rest of the song. The second half seems floaty, loose, and large which contrasts most of the album. “How many times” probably has the worst guest verse I have ever heard, Future just does not pair well with the song whatsoever. The interludes on Aquarius are actually really amazing, they add a ton to the atmosphere of the album. “Pretend” has just the most amazing synth, it is just perfect for the sound the album is going for. “Far Side of The Moon” has an arpeggiating lead and this boomy drum kit with this weird percussion that is awesome. Tinashe on this album does these things with background vocals that add depth and space to the album. “Bated Breath” is the seemingly slowest song and like “Bet” its chorus is minimal and anxious. The second half of the song is the most gorgeous instrumentation on the album, there is a piano solo that goes on for about two and a half minutes that then clashes with a guitar part. “Wildfire” is the brightest song on the album in terms of production and rightfully so, it is the burn of all of your exes things kind of song. The album “ends” with “The Storm” another interlude type song that is a good ending to the album. It seems like it is the release of the storm that was building throughout the album. There is another song after the outro which I am sure was supposed to be a hit song like how “Super Bass” was a bonus track. I wish the album had really ended with “The Storm” and not needed the bonus track.
She has recently said that she is working on a more upbeat second album. Which I have some trepidation about, because I love the sound of Aquarius. I hope that she carries the personality and use of production to create great atmosphere over to her next album.
Kilo Kish is probably the strangest of these three. She has worked with A$ap Ferg, Childish Gambino, Flatbush Zombies, and Vince Staples among others. Her mixtape K+ is basically a rap album, while her EP Across is more alternative. She doesn’t really sing on K+ per say, at points she does. Most times she uses a sing song type delivery, which fits well with how chill the album is. Both K+ and her EP Across are both under 30 minutes respectively. K+ is to me the more immediately enjoyable project, because the production is good and the features are used really well. My favorite song from it is probably "Creepwave" which features Flatbush Zombies. The beat switches about two and a half minutes and it works really well. Flatbush help out the track immensely.
The one thing that I think is really interesting about K+ is the way she describes things within songs. The situations become relatable when she describes them in detail. Like on Goldmine where she is thinking about someone.
“ Laying here in bed, this blue pen and pad in hand
I try to face the fact that I think you're the one
I have just embraced the laughs and all the good fun that we've had
I want to tell you so, but I don't think you'd understand
You sure have a funny way of playing with emotions”
It really helps make this world that she is creating within the songs more immediately graspable. Unlike SZA, Kilo’s music does not sound natural, it sounds more alien and manufactured. Not in the way that it is cheap and sounds mass produced, but that it sounds less like it was made in the studio with live instruments; It isn’t as warm or as vibrant.
It feels as though there are clouds perpetually hanging over the world of Kilo's music and on her ep across it is even more pronounced. Since across does not have any rap type production, we get songs like “Locket”. Which is moody and like a cloudy day kind of oppressive. Everything weighs down on the listener and gives this sense that the song is small. Yet it is constantly moving around the listener's head and morphing into something else. At the end it transforms into the next song which is something I have always liked, and “On The Way” is actually a really interesting sound. The Keyboard sounds like someone's voice was autotuned and vocoded and just made into a synth and it turns out really cool. To me the intriguing thing about Across is that it seems to occur on a road trip, thus the name Across. The tracks that most correlate to this are “Begin Route” and “Destination”, the intro and outro respectively. “Destination” is the strangest song on the entire album. Kilo Kish only sings one line on it, she sings, “In my brand new car,” which was also the start of “Curious”. The production is awesome and it is just a really good wrap up to the album.
I don’t really know how to end this, so I am just going to say that I really dig all three of these artists. I hope they maintain their creativity and use of atmosphere and color to the extent that they have so far.
by Addison Garry (@addisonagarry)