To be self-effacing in today’s musical landscape is a novelty, even if it means wearing a tribal mask to keep listeners focused on the music, and not the person making it. Maybe that’s why SBTRKT (pronounced “Subtract”) has generated a respectable buzz as an upstart composer with electronic grooves as vibrant as the colorful shields he wears. “Live performance and music in general these days seems to be about the celebrity of it — something I’m not into,” SBTRKT told Pitchfork in a 2010 interview. “The music I make is slightly unexpected and the mask is part of that idea.” Still, given the recent acclaim he’s received from Drake and others, nothing should be unexpected for the anonymous South London producer, whose full-length debut flirts with bouncy dubstep, uptempo synths and midtempo soul compositions, all relatively tranquil and very rhythmic.
Anonymity aside, much of SBTRKT’s charm resides within his chameleonic approach to dance music. On his remix of M.I.A.’s “XXXO,” his sound was frenzied and tribal, perfectly tailored for the eccentric singer’s voice to drift effortlessly throughout the melody. The producer stayed closer to home geographically and artistically when he remixed Tinie Tempah’s “Pass Out,” slightly increasing the beats-per-minute to create a reggae-tinged instrumental over which the young UK emcee delivered a noteworthy — albeit typical — party track.
Sonically, SBTRKT’s self-titled LP is similar to his energetic Step In Shadows EP, released just seven months ago, even if the former release is airy and livelier than its successor. But while SBTRKT is rooted in genre-blending electro-pop, its hushed tones and sparse backdrop give it an atmospheric feel, a little more sullen than his previous recording, yet much more inclusive. “Trials of the Past,” for instance, uses a humming bass line, restless equalizer and sporadic keys to allow frequent collaborator Sampha to wield a cosmic tale of survival and perseverance. The same goes for “Never Never,” in which warped organ loops and offbeat percussion help the vocalist address the pain of heartbreak: “Hoping, hoping you’d return my calls/Convinced myself, for my health, that it’s not my fault.”
It will be interesting to see what becomes of SBTRKT in the coming months, especially since his stock continues to rise overseas and beyond. Sure, he can hide his identity, but there’s no denying his sudden emergence as one of dance music’s notable producers, very well steeped in his own layered aesthetic, yet open enough to welcome other musical influences into the fold. In many ways, his backseat approach to SBTRKT is a direct reflection of his unassuming personality — the music is mere scenery for enjoyment or a tool for others to mold their creative vision. A mask can’t hide true talent for long.