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Freak Scene: The (Not That) Weird World of Hype Williams

Hype Williams, the performance art/musical duo of Inga Copeland and Dean Blunt spent a few years confounding audiences with their music, which ranged from sound collage to Sade covers to fucked up Drake remixes to an approximation of free jazz.

In 2012, though, Copeland and Blunt dropped the Hype Williams moniker to make a record under their own names—aliases? Whatever. The result was Black is Beautiful an album that managed to still be pretty weird, but also, more importantly, undeniably listenable. Not listenable as an art project or a curiosity or anything like that, but listenable as a piece of work designed to be emotionally affecting. Since then, they've built a small world up around them, filtering mutant dub, straightforward folk, synth experiments, chamber pop and just about every genre under the sun through their warped but increasingly sincere sensibility. As always, it's hard to track their career. They move from label to label. Some of their releases are willfully obscure, while others are ubiquitous in the kind of record stores that a Hype Williams record would be ubiquitous in (weird ones).

Since Black is Beautiful, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland have mostly been recording separately. The music they've been making solo is easily the most accessible, pop-leaning stuff of their career thus far. Here are a few notable releases.

Dean Blunt, The Redeemer (Hippos in Tanks, 2013)
My first impulse is to describe this record as "misunderstood," which is unfair to both the album and unfair to anyone that listened to it and didn't like it. It's probably unfair to people that liked it too. The Redeemer is maybe a breakup record. It certainly seems like one. It hops genres schizophrenically, there are halting answering machine messages from a woman, maybe an ex girlfriend, and when he sings, Blunt's voice just sounds tired, wilting, cracking over a collection of keyboard sketches, orchestral flourishes and haunting choral arrangements. It feels like a warped take on the sort of big-budget studio record that is designed from the very beginning to make a statement, except Blunt's statement comes in the form of half-finished ideas, songs that are meticulously thought out but seem almost improvised.

Dean Blunt, "Demon"

"Demon," a song from The Redeemer, features glass breaking, car horns, a computerized woman's voice saying things like what you did was wrong and, of course, Blunt whisper-singing, halting mid-phrase, over ominous war drums. It sounds like a demo of something meant to be more fleshed out and finished, but there's beauty in the way so much of "Demon" and really all of The Redeemer feels abandoned, like Blunt went into it looking to make an epic breakup album, but couldn't bring himself to finish it.

Inga Copeland, Higher Powers Mixtape (Internet, 2012/2013)

Higher Powers is frustratingly brief, but it's one of my favorite things I've listened to this year. Over small synths and rickety percussion, Copeland works through dancehall and the ghostly echoes of trip-hop to create a suite of disconnected songs that tackle city living. On "B.M.W." she sings—her voice a thin nasal high register—The city's got me feeling weak/weak, weak, weak/and when it keeps you strong/it's in the city you belong, before bringing in an achingly simple keyboard melody. It feels like a direct descendent of the great 99 Records aesthetic, which I touched on in the previous installment Freak Scene. In the songs on Higher Powers, her environment is inseparable from her emotional state, and by the time the EP/mixtape/whatever closes with "World in Danger III"—a song built on a rigid dancehall stomp-and-clap—it feels like she's still got so much more emotion to draw from the concrete world she inhabits. Maybe it's the briefness, the self-imposed smallness of this release that makes it work. Like The Redeemer, Higher Powers feels not-quite-finished, a sonic sketch of a visceral emotional moment: Copeland haunting tar-baked roofs, singing quietly to herself as the city (any city) closes in around her. It's hard to tell if it's comforting or stifling.

Joanne Robertson, "Halls" (World Music, 2013?)

When Copeland and Blunt were first releasing music, the conversation about it was often dominated by questions of whether they were being sincere or not. Was Hype Williams a joke? An art project? Some sort of conceptual experiment that none of us could understand? At some point it was, maybe, but, as evidenced by the releases I've discussed above, the duo is also pretty serious about making music that we can love on its own terms. Copeland and Blunt recently started their own label, World Music, and Joanne Robertson, who sings on The Redeemer track "Imperial Gold", is one of the artists on that label. Robertson makes straightforward folk, which is dangerous if you're looking to stand out at all. But she does. There's not much music from her online, but "Halls" is far and away my favorite. On it, her voice lilts in unexpected places, with lyrics like Read from a book/steal all the words turned into a wobbly dip-and-dive delivered in a gorgeous rounded whisper from the back of her throat. It's an intimate song, plain and honest.

I've been thinking a lot about what these three post-Black is Beautiful releases mean for Copeland and Blunt. Sometimes when you make a move like this—transitioning from weird, frustrating pieces to songs designed for people to live with and love—you can't really go back. It could be worse.

Freak Scene: The (Not That) Weird World of Hype Williams