Album: Labrinth, Electronic Earth (Syco)
It's not the easiest matter for a producer to step out front as an artist in his or her own right, as can be confirmed by anyone who's searched in vain for a glimmer of personal, defining character on a Mark Ronson album.
So Timothy "Labrinth" McKenzie's successful transition from being the backroom boffin behind Tinie Tempah and others, into a fully fledged hitmaker in his own right, is no mean achievement.
Electronic Earth includes Labrinth's previous hit singles "Let the Sun Shine" and "Earthquake", along with his current release "Last Time", on which the incessant auto-tune, preceding almost every word with a mechanical grace-note, rather short-changes his natural character and charm. But the song's familiar trip-around-the-world theme, namechecking Tokyo, Cairo, Berlin and Paris, indicates the breadth of his ambitions. Which of course means he has to face the quandary posed for all successful R&B acts: how to think global while staying local, maintaining allegiance to the street while aiming for the stars.
It's a situation touched on here in "Sweet Riot", which, despite references to Tottenham and a sardonic reference to being "all in this together", seems to be torn between meaning strictly a musical riot and something more socially direct. "We rise against the machine and take what's rightfully ours/ the moshpit generation," he announces enigmatically in terminology that sounds like an incursion from an entirely different social milieu to that of both UK R&B fans and looting rioters alike. So where, one wonders, does Labrinth fit in? It's a mystery deepened somewhat by "Sundown", where his bewilderment at his girlfriend's insatiable sexual appetite is sketched to lines lifted from Joni Mitchell.
"Express Yourself" – effectively an adapted cover version of the oft-sampled Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band classic – provides a few more clues. "I don't make the papers, I'm far from JLS/ Ain't got The X Factor, I'm not what they expect," he claims. "But it won't be long before my turn is next." But of course, the references in "Earthquake" to Simon Cowell and Cowell's label Syco (to which Labrinth is the first non-talent-show signee in over half a decade) betray just how far from the street he has already travelled in his short career. Not that he ever planned to stay put, according to "Climb on Board", where the frantic, bustling drum programme and soaring synth evoke his intention to head for "another planet".
Ultimately, however, despite the fizzing electronic undercarriage applied to most tracks on Electronic Earth, Labrinth's real forte may turn out to be the more traditional, earthbound musical skills evident in "Beneath Your Beautiful", his duet with Emeli Sandé. A romantic piano ballad laced with strings, it brings out the echoes of John Legend in his natural, un-auto-tuned voice, and finds him at his most engagingly poetic, asking his lover, "Will you let me see beneath your beautiful tonight?"
DOWNLOAD THIS Beneath Your Beautiful; Express Yourself; Sundown; Earthquake; Sweet Riot
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