There are some artists you will follow anywhere, and for a time, Guillermo Scott Herren was one of those artists. Three of his full-lengths as Prefuse 73 — 2001’s Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, and both records from 2003, One Word Extinguisher and its outtakes/revisions companion, Extinguished
— are three of the very best records this quickly aging decade has to
offer. Whether he was restructuring the meaning of hip-hop, teaching it
to love again, or stuffing firecrackers down its throat just to see
what would happen, he was pushing boundaries and making sounds that
were exciting and fresh. Basically, he was doing what everyone says
they want artists to do.
Like all those who dabble with drastic experimentation, not all of his ideas panned out, but last year’s Surrounded by Silence seemed
especially worrisome to those of us who would crown Herren king. It
wasn’t that it was bad; the first listen was a stunning reminder of why
music had been missing Prefuse 73. The problem was that upon further
listening, it became clear that its most alluring trait was the way it
reminded you of his previous, more essential work. Security Screenings
is similar in that regard, and though it’s still the sound of a true
maestro working in his glitchy hip-hop field, it also has moments that
feel tentative and, worse still, forced.
Maybe Herren’s small army of side projects — the successful Savath & Savalas, the sporadic Piano Overlord work, the production business of La Correción (with his close friend DJ Nobody), and the recently conceived A Cloud Mireya (with On Air Library’s Claudia Deheza) — is distracting him. But Security Screenings doesn’t sound distracted. It sounds annoyed.
Herren never once bit his tongue when responding to what he considered unfounded criticism of Surrounded by Silence (one especially touchy track here features a voice mock-criticizing that album), and Security Screenings
almost sounds like an apology, a "hope we can still be friends" kind of
note. He made a point of announcing that this record has very few guest
spots (the big knock on the collaboration-crammed Silence
was that there were too many cooks in the kitchen), but it goes further
than that. It’s as if he looked backward through his catalog and asked,
What did they like about the others? Instead of making music for
himself, this record feels like it’s trying to placate the elusive
Sometimes, it all works out. "With Dirt and Two Texts: Afternoon Version" is on par with some of One Word Extinguisher’s heights, a temperamental, soul-infused beat that twists and turns with subtle alterations throughout. And the pitch-bending breaks of "Weight Watching" capture the sentiment that Silence lacked. Herren spreads the melancholy across "Matrimoniods" with expert precision, reminding us yet again that hip-hop doesn’t have to be all
bling and boasting — it can have a huge heart, too.
But some pieces lack the confident stride his best works held, as if this
time around, Herren’s just trying not to piss us off. "No Origin" in
particular, with its choppy delivery and "Busy Signal"-style cadence,
feels like it’s asking for approval rather than charging ahead on
uncharted ground. You can hear him trying new things — like the
extended, messy coda of "When the Grip Lets You Go" — but many of these
moments sound restrained. Even the pleasantly chaotic distortion of
"Creating Cylindrical Headaches," a collaboration with Four Tet, is much simpler and less engaging than it initially appears.
Part of an artist’s job description is to entertain us, and by taking cues from his audience, Herren has moved toward that goal. But he isn’t the type of artist we rely on for the tried-and-true. He’s an artist to whom we look for new perspectives, new ways of looking at and relating to music. Yes, artists can succeed by giving us what we want, but we also look to them to give us things that we didn’t even know we needed.
Security Screenings is a solid record, one that will probably sound much better in the context of Prefuse 73’s catalog twenty years from now than we’ll ever give it credit for today. Maybe it’s what we asked for. And if it is, maybe we owe Guillermo Scott Herren an apology.
Prefix interview: Prefuse 73 [20 Questions] by Mike Krolak