18+ don't turn on their webcams when we boot up our three-way Skype call, so at the point of talking I've still never seen their faces; but I finally learn their first names. Justin and Samia are talking to me from their respective homes on the West Coast, and I can hear Samia's dog yapping frantically at various points through the call while Justin laughs at her efforts to quieten him from the other line. These are two people whose innermost anonymous sexual fantasties and nightmares I've been listening to on repeat, but in this moment they just became a bit more "real."
As net artists and shock-mongering R&B singers/producers, 18+ have been gradually cutting closer and closer to the bone with each of the three mixtapes—titled M1xtape, Mixta2e and Mixtap3—they've released online since 2011, accompanied with visuals of gyrating Second Life characters and chopped-and-screwed Lana Del Rey videos. Despite accolades like an early commission for a Prada campaign video, they were known for most of this time only as Boy and Sis.
Their music was guarded in the way that many digital native projects are accused of being: the surreal and explicit lyrics veered toward nonsense, the people behind it were nowhere to be seen and the name couldn't be googled without SafeSearch filters on. But with Mixtap3, the LA duo's personalities rang through clearer than ever before: the wilting melancholy of "Almostleaving" (below) and Auto-tuned confessionalism of "Cake" made it clear that this was a project of the heart, while still continuing their mission of ripping pop music to shreds via demonic Kendrick Lamar samples and skewed beats—like "OIXU"—that scream like R&B put through the shredder.
Now, the guard is beginning to come down. Having released their first single proper, the split "Crow"/"Horn," they've just announced their debut album Trust, arriving in November via London label Houndstooth. Trust is almost like a greatest hits compilation, featuring pristinely mastered highlights from the duo's previous mixtapes, including the tracks mentioned above as well as the gothic swagger of "Forgiven," streaming exclusively below. With a monochromatic cover that shows their real faces in high definition for the first time (albeit framed by the outlines of screens), this album marks the duo bringing the image of their bodies into the realm of their art for the first time.
After years of digital dissembling, it's disarming to be let into Justin and Samia's world, and to hear them so openly tell me their story. Justin, who's from California, and Samia, who's from Hawaii, initially met at the School of Art Institute of Chicago before moving back to their respective homes, where their musical partnership developed online. "Even when we lived with each other for a while, we had rooms right next to each other but we'd record in our separate rooms," explains Justin. Their resulting "anti-music" bedroom jams are hence less like '11pm with your bae' and more like '3am, alone with a screen glare,' capturing something heartbreakingly honest about that awkward hour. As Samia tells me, "I feel like a good song is one that makes me feel most uncomfortable afterwards."
There's this old idea that the online world is somehow inherently less real or intimate than the physical world, which I think is just starting to change. But for you guys, your whole creative relationship is played out online. Justin: Yeah, it is. It's like your internet interaction becomes an index to your real interactions. You're forced to write things out, you're forced to speak clearly, you're forced to articulate your thoughts in a more organized manner because you're turning it into text. So it helps you maybe to be more intimate, to reveal more information than when you're just hanging out at a bar with someone, commenting on what's around you. You actually have to delve a little bit deeper, I think.
You've got a tendency for using explicit or funny lyrics that are sort of incongruous; that line in "Crow" where you sing dat ass in go in circles always leaps out to me. What do the lyrics mean to you? Samia: To me it's pretty clear that it's about somebody that's in a relationship and is unhappy but is staying in it for the sex. I don't write my lyrics before I record, so often I surprise myself, and I learn a lot about myself and my mind when I press record. It's really revealing. In some ways, the anonymity allowed me to just say whatever was on my mind. That song I think I wrote at a very specific time in my life when it was very personal, but it also comes off lightly I think, and also maybe a bit teen. I also feel like the music is a place to play out these characters, or that I'm able to say things that I can't really say out loud.
Justin: The whole thing has been very revealing. I was very embarrassed of the project for a very long time, just in the sense that my friends were getting this intimate access to me. I think that is also another productive tension of it, that we're continually trying to embarrass ourselves. It's always a balancing act between this cool, surface-oriented thing which is very common in youth culture, and then this extremely revealing thing. When you put those together it's very uncomfortable and very bizarre.
"It's always a balancing act between this cool, surface-oriented thing which is very common in youth culture, and then this extremely revealing thing."
Sexuality is crucial to your music, but do you think of it as sexy music? Justin: I think it's about sex, but it's not sexy particularly. Maybe some of the songs are—some elements are—but usually it's looking at sex, or looking at how sexuality is used, or looking at how mechanical aspects of how people deal with sexuality have become, or how automatic sex is now. But I think bassline of "Crow" is very sexy. Lots of aspects are sexy, but then they're put next to aspects that question that.
Samia: I know that more recently, a lot of my friends that have just started listening to it have told me that it's dark or that there's like an evilness to it in some way that's maybe the opposite of what I think sexy is, something that's intimidating in some way. It's also hard to move to. I know on one music video of ours the top comment is "got my girlfriend pregnant to this song," because so much of it is around sex, but I don't think it's a glamorous version of sex in any way. It's like sex as a part, or sex as a trigger. It feels really removed.
Justin: I also think it might be a reaction to how sex and sex-oriented things are like a convention of this type of music, and so we use that convention but in a different way, or we attempt to subvert that convention.
Speaking of the conventional aspect of sexuality or sexiness, was that something you were particularly exploring in your early visuals? Samia: In the beginning with the videos, in choosing the footage for them, it was about desirable objects, or things that were hyperreal. Like the females in CGI, or even commercial imagery for restaurants and stuff, just anything that's hyper-sensationalized.
Justin: Like, impossible ideals. Artificial ideals. A lot of over-produced pop music kind of functions the same way as maybe a CGI fruit in a commercial for cereal or something.
You often decontextualize or warp elements of pop music and culture, putting yourselves in conversation with that stuff. What's your relationship with mainstream pop and R&B? Justin: I love pop music. I listen to the radio, I listen to top 40 rap and R&B and I love it. I have since I was old enough to choose what radio station I listen to.
Samia: In Hawaii, a thing a lot of the musicians do is they just cover songs and turn them into island songs, so I grew up with a lot of that stuff, covers of pop songs. So it was like, taking the structure and the vibe of a pop song and turning it into something more mellow or editing it in some way. But a lot of the time what I don't like about pop music, or at least recently, is the video side to it, which is often like a glorification of the artist's face and body.
Justin: Oh yeah, it's horrible.
Samia: There's now this practice where it's like every artist is going to make a short film, and who's starring in it? Them! I've always just wanted to take other people's music videos and use them so they work better...putting these images in a place they weren't originally made for. Because I would feel so goofy if Justin and I just got on a motorcycle for a music video.
Why do you want to avoid that iconography? Samia: I just don't want to be overly aware of what I'm doing in that regard. We've talked about if we were ever to do a music video with us in it we'd maybe do it so we were unconscious while being filmed, so it wasn't so controlled. Because there's an aspect to the glorification of popstars and the "icon" that doesn't really attract me.
After the first two mixtapes, it felt like your music and visuals got a little more overtly melancholy; has it become a more emotionally honest or cathartic experience for you? Justin: I haven't really thought there was this distinct rupture, but maybe you're right. But I think of the second mixtape as like, very dark. Almost shitty-sounding dark. It's very beautiful at times, but it sounds like whatever spaces are being created are like, indoors and in dark spaces. I think it maybe is darker than the third mixtape, but with the third mixtape, our personalities and our bodies are becoming more of a part of 18+.
Samia: Also in the third mixtape, it's really important the way that we arrange everything; we'll play the role of the gangster or the bitch or this asshole guy, and then the very next song will be a personal, sad song. It's almost like we delve into being fake and then being really real again.
I feel like you've been playing with that kind of layering and contrasting more explicitly in the visuals as well—like "Cake" has that digital and physical world intersecting, and it's a similar thing with the "Crow" video. Is this something you're trying to make more explicit? Justin: It's definitely conscious, and it's probably again tied to the fact that we as two bodies are representing 18+ a lot more recently. So we're just trying to move forward doing that more, I guess. Before we were dealing with avatars, actual video game avatars. Now what's happening is that it's us, our bodies. There's this feeling that our bodies are becoming avatars for 18+.