I should have seen this album coming. I loved Exit and Joyful Rebellion more than most people did, but even I couldn’t deny the schizophrenic tendencies they demonstrated. Bouncing from one genre to the next from track to track, it felt like K-os was unsure about what he wanted to do musically. The outside questioning of his authenticity–interpret that how you will–due to his middle-class suburban upbringing seemed to be under his skin, or rather, his music. But that seems to be the case no more. Whereas his previous albums were melancholy and cryptic, Atlantis: Hymns for Disco is angry and outspoken. It feels like the accumulation and release of twenty years’ worth of racial-, societal- and class-based frustrations wrapped up into a progressive pop package.
I expected Atlantis to fall along the lines of the first two songs, “Electrik Heat: The Seekwill” and “The Rain.” The former is hip-hop for the most dedicated of b-boys; the latter is a soulful, bluesy ballad of sadness. These tracks are a step up over his previous work in every way, but they are still very much rooted in specific genres of music. Instead, Atlantis decides to ignore the concept of genre for the most part, and it’s better as a result of that.
Calling this album genre-blending is not enough. K-os deconstructs every major music movement of the twentieth century into components, wipes them clean of classifications, and reconstructs a new sound on his own terms. You know the influences are there, but you can’t exactly pinpoint them. On any given song you can hear tinges of hip-hop, soul, rock, doo-wop, ’80s R&B, indie, blues, reggae, folk, new wave, jazz, electronic, disco, even country. But these influences are rarely derivative, and at times they are unrecognizable. The best examples of this are the single, “Sunday Morning,” and “Born to Run,” which are both ridiculously catchy but fresh sounding at the same time.
More than just a musical history lesson, however, this is fifty-five minutes of existential reflection and insight. K-os touches on heavy themes such as race, alienation, isolation, relationships, materialism and spirituality. His own spirituality and faith have often turned listeners off–his delivery can be preachy and, at times, pious. That’s still in there to some extent, but such references are less explicit this go ’round and fit in better with his questioning of anything and everything.
Unlike other artists who try to separate themselves by going against every musical current, K-os abides by as many rules as he breaks. These songs are very much rooted in the pop traditions of verses and chorus structures, but they aren’t afraid to step outside of those conventions. While listening to Atlantis, the embrace of and disregard for previous trends can create a sense of excitement (or uneasiness, depending on your musical tastes). Simply put, Atlantis is a shining example of pop music in the 21st century should be.