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Dean Blunt: A Primer on the Shapeshifter’s Uncompromising Art

Dean Blunt: A Primer on the Shapeshifter’s Uncompromising Art
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It’s a Thursday night in March, I’m at Bushwick DIY stronghold Market Hotel, and the thermostat is set to 80 degrees; the space is so saturated with mist that the visibility is five to ten feet at best. Pretty much everyone inside the packed room is sweating and swaying to the ponderously dubby bass lines, samples of sirens and shattered glass, and generally corrugated noise of avant-punk provocateur Dean Blunt, who’s standing Christ-like above his audience, drawling lines like, “All the crackers in the crowd looking cool.” I knew the night would be a weird one when the U.K. artist’s publicist told me I would be on the press list as “Jo O’Meara & Hannah Spearritt,” but I didn’t realize quite how far the performer would go to make his audience as literally uncomfortable as possible.

Any conclusion you can attempt to draw about Blunt — not his real name — is probably wrong, and compiling his artistic forays into a linear history is probably futile because there’s likely something you missed. How would you know that pollyjacobsen is the name of his YouTube channel, if not directed there through word-of-mouth or an essay? Blunt, whose age is unknown, grew up in Hackney, an edgy and immigrant-heavy neighborhood of London. It’s one of the few facts about Blunt that’s verifiable, since he’s said it in two interviews: one with The Guardian in 2012 (as part of ironic-pop experimentalists Hype Williams, with Russian artist Inga Copeland) and another with the same publication a year later.

His background may be fluid depending on how he’s feeling that day, but the artistry he’s produced is much less ephemeral — if no less multifaceted and unpredictable. He’s collaborated with Oneohtrix Point Never associate James Ferraro, made beats with Arca, held an “art installation” of just one stock photo and another gallery exhibition of actual paintings, and spun epic remixes for producer Bruno Pronsanto’s dance-floor odysseys. Then there are his perplexing live shows, like his 2013 appearance at the Artist’s Space in New York City (which opened with ten minutes of rain sounds in pitch-black). Altogether, he’s on the same sort of wavelength as Death Grips, Tyler, the Creator, and Father John Misty — in other words, artists that take sheer joy in f**king with people.

His newest LP under his Babyfather alias — BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow, made in conjunction with DJ Escrow and Gassman D — arrives April Fool’s Day, of course, via Hyperdub. The artists involved abstained from interviews for good reason: The album’s prickly, sidewinding mix of snippets, samples, and instrumental themes stands on its own without the artist’s po-faced explanation of how it’s his most personal record yet. But we took it upon ourselves to put together a compendium on Blunt’s finest work thus far, whether it’s credited to his main moniker or belongs to one of his many side projects and alter egos. Get familiar below.

Dean Blunt

The Narcissist II (2012)

Without a doubt Blunt’s most menacing release, The Narcissist II opens by introducing his works’ oft-to-be-repeated theme of domestic violence. A woman is heard arguing with a man, their diction and inflection indicative of an old film clip, before a gunshot rings out, drifting with the distant sounds of rainfall into the next track’s seasick chords (“Caught Feelings”). The humor buried six feet beneath the LP’s nine tracks is a dark yet winning combination of banal and lightly misogynistic: “She’s so dumb / Wonder if she knows she’s at my place,” he moans over a bastardization of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” melody on “Are You As Good As You Remember,” before admitting, “She’d done it all / On my face.” If Blunt’s discography were a museum retrospective, this would be the gallery you’d try to move the fastest through.

The Redeemer (2013)

Let not your irony meter be moved by the black-and-white prayer-hands icon (which, for the record, preceded Drake’s tattoo) on the cover of The Redeemer. Let it be moved by “Make It Official,” a pastiche of whacking guitars and what sounds like half-hearted karaoke over synth sparkles á la an ’80s-sitcom montage. The Redeemer is all over the place, exemplified by tracks like “Brutal,” which approximates a proto-iLoveMakonnen demo with pianos. It’s not clear if the voicemail snippets are authentic or not; the truth behind the album’s heartbreak has certainly been speculated about.

Black Metal (2014) 

Black Metal might be Blunt’s most accessible LP, and thus his most radical. Dual guitars lattice moodily over a drum machine’s death march on “BLOW,” while on “MOLLY AND AQUAFINA” Blunt intertwines reflections on relationships past — alternately aching and bitter — with British painter, singer, and frequent collaborator Joanne Robertson. Listeners looking for some tangible meaning estimate this to be his most earnest attempt at songwriting, the key word being estimate: In an interview with The Wire, Blunt said he hates “black appropriation of dead white tropes,” calling out Afropunk and select writers. And yet, the album’s smoky dad sax, John Fahey-like fingerpicking, and song titles like “PUNK” and “COUNTRY” are nothing if not references to “dead white tropes.”

Skin Fade Album (2014)

The sub-half-hour mixtape Skin Fade Album opens with a clip of Black Panther leader Khalid Muhammad talking to BBC journalist Louis Theroux in the 1999 “Black Nationalism” episode of the British TV news network’s Weird Weekends series. Blunt loops “The white man I say to you over and over again” as a (heh) blunt-force example of form mirroring content — except Blunt doesn’t explicitly say anything until he quotes the Wu-Tang Clan’s “The Closing” over sputtering electric guitar licks. In the meantime, synthpad exhalations, atonal and unresolved, buoy Robertson’s ramblings. Alternately Björk- and Jenny Hval-esque, her indeterminate words underpin saxophone smoke signals and drum-machine pings and sighs.

Babyfather

UK2UK Mixtape (2015) 

“Meditation,” featuring Blunt’s frequent collaborator and perennially dissonant noisemaker Arca, is the lead “single” off of UK2UK, and perhaps the most traditional among its ten tracks — if you can even call them that. “As it was summer, the rave scene was poppin’,” Blunt wheezes nasally somewhere between the warped sirens of “ESCROW ft dj escrow” and “pagans ft arca,” the latter a soporific reverie on two piano chords. Breezy even by Blunt’s wildly fluctuating standards, UK2UK undulates through a collection of short, melancholic instrumentals, not unlike B-sides or alternate versions of tracks on the proper LP that follows, BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow. UK2UK lines up with Blunt’s history of supplementing albums with companion pieces in varying degrees of completion (like 2014’s plaintive Stone Island, allegedly recorded in a Moscow hotel room, another ten-track offering to accompany the previous year’s The Redeemer).

BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow (2016)

Arca and Micachu (perhaps Björk is a connection?) also appear on BBF, the proper debut from Babyfather, which is also the title of a companion EP he released alongside 2014’s pseudo-serious Black Metal. It opens with a hiss, likely from a just-inhaled helium balloon if the rest of the LP’s pitched-up vocals are any indication. A harp motif loops like silk beneath a clipped vocal sample of “This makes me proud to be British,” which becomes deeply agitating when it’s repeated back-to-back for five minutes. Even though the rest of BBF is less antagonistic — a cauldron of Nokia ringtones, orchestral trip-hop interludes, and skits about baby daddies — Babyfather can’t help themselves: That sarcastic statement of patriotism pops up throughout the record like a broken Union Jack-in-the-box.

Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland

The Attitude Era (2012)

desktop….tunes
finished/unfinished
sorry to anyone we promised these tunes to.cannae deal with them anymore.start again.

Dean and Inga

The duo gave the above quotation to The Guardian to accompany this mix, which resembles UK2UK in track length and “finished/unfinished” quality. When this collection — which includes a “rejected remix” of someone saying “F**kin’ joker,” alleged outtakes from Narcissist and Hype Williams’ One Nation, and a spoken-word treatise named “schadenfreude” — was released four years ago as a free MediaFire file, someone over at self-titled had the foresight to download the songs before re-uploading them to the publication’s own SoundCloud. Blunt has since removed The Attitude Era from his own streaming service page (right now @jesuschrist3000ADHD has just a few releases under his Babyfather/Hype Williams alias). Parts of it may reappear elsewhere in his discography: The coughing at the beginning of “heel turn vocal version” opens Black Is Beautiful in a slowed-down form.

Black Is Beautiful (2014)

The tracks on Black Is Beautiful have no names except for the first one (the heat-twisted “Venice Dreamway”), because not even song nomenclature should be consistent on any release Dean Blunt has attached his name(s) to. And yet, this 15-track release is among his most cohesive. Between 30 seconds and nine minutes long, each song features verbalized snippets just as likely to be obscure YouTube samples as Blunt and Copeland’s own voices. Themes drift and dissipate throughout, consolidating around moments like a cover of Donnie & Joe Emerson’s “Baby” on the same tuned-out frequency as Ariel Pink’s recent re-imagination of the 1979 ballad. Theremin wails and tightly coiled harp arpeggios soothe as much as the monstrously pitched-down repetition of “Never look back” on “9” aggravates. The talking-head interlude on the same track (“When white people tell other white people they can’t have sex they become teenage rebels”) amuses.

Hype Williams

Find Out What Happens When People Stop Being Polite, and Start Gettin’ Reel (2010) 

You’ve never heard the Pokémon theme song like this, except perhaps in your nightmares: “Gotta catch ‘em all, yeah,” slurs a thickly distorted vocal sample on the beginning of Find Out What Happens, the 2010 debut album by the now-defunct Hype Williams. Elsewhere on the LP, there’s a turgid reprise of George Michael’s “Jesus to a Child,” which he splits into three different songs. They run for 30 seconds, a minute, and 45 seconds, respectively, sludgy back-to-backs that’ll leave you woozy and aurally nauseated — or maybe it’s just digesting Hype Williams’ mashup of pop culture that’s making you feel that way. Did they name a song after Andrea Lopez because that’s the name of both a Discovery Channel reality TV star and a telenovela star, or because it’s completely random? They’ll never tell.

One Nation (2011)

In 2011, Copeland and Blunt gave a name-that-tune-style interview to The Wire in one of the rare instances in which Hype Williams played along. “The best art is funny,” Blunt told the interviewer at one point, a sound bite that many of the musician’s critics have come back to when attempting to parse the duo’s sound collages. “The best art has humor in it. You can’t take yourself too seriously.” That year’s release, One Nation, is a merry prankster’s paradise: “Your girl smells chung when she smells dior” interpolates Ryan Leslie’s 2008 nugget of R&B Fabolous-ness, “Addiction,” while “william, shotgun sprayer” scans like a successfully faked polygraph test of the “hypnagogic pop” that Blunt thoroughly dismisses in that same interview.

pollyjacobsen 

Blunt and Copeland’s YouTube channel stands alone. Updated constantly with videos of ranging lengths and topics, pollyjacobsen features the former riffing on Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar’s “No More Parties in L.A.” over a monitor-frying low-end frequency (late February’s “sting freestyle”). “TRIDENT 2 (2014),” uploaded in August of 2015, tackles a spree of gang-related shootings in London. Some of the clips are from his officially released albums — except not quite, because what’s the fun in that? Take “PUNK / HUSH” from Black Metal; here, it differs wildly from the album version by opening with an amalgamation of perma-trend words — “emoji,” “baby daddy,” “the final straw took to Twitter today.” And be sure to read Idris Elba’s “endorsement,” which appears at the beginning of the video for an album track called “100.” If there were ever a YouTube rabbit hole worth falling down, it’s this one.

Dean Blunt and James Ferraro

Watch the Throne (2013)

This one-off collaboration between Blunt and avant guard James Ferraro — the latter associated with now-discontinued Florida label Hippos in Tanks, which put out some of the former’s earliest releases — is actual background music. A minimal hum of party chatter circulates as Blunt murmurs and grinds intermittently on a Fender Rhodes ’66, while Ferraro plinks away at a Baby Grand whenever the spirit moves him. Put this on loop in the background for your next high-brow, low-budget dinner party.

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