3 out of 5
Produced by: Ant
Having not picked up his preceding EPs, or caught their subsequent hype, my first exposure to Dem Atlas was on his MF Dem mixtape, which found the artist rapping over MF Doom instrumentals. While I found the format ultimately limiting, the potential straining at those limits was incredibly promising, and I very much looked forward to what Dem might do next.
That mindset sincerely had me picking up Bad Actress – essentially Dem’s solo debut – with excitement. …And then I’m not sure what happened after that, except I know I listened to the record, and then practically never listened to it again. While that’s sometimes the effect of expectations, as I return to the disc now, for review, I’m confirming it wasn’t that: that Bad Actress was a talent “maturing,” and in doing so, unfortunately exposing that the somewhat bursting-at-the-seams energy of Dem’s previous work maybe was just bravado, hitting its limit as opposed to holding something back.
Which is all incredible critical for an album that, as a debut, is still incredibly solid, and still a display of talent. But in moving from the mixtape approach that was somewhat present on all his previous solo works – bringing in different producers in each track – here, settling into consistency with Ant as his producer, necessarily casts a more synonymous sound across the album, which has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, Dem is fully capable of switching between flowing raps and soulful, if raw, singing, which lends itself to a selection of beats thst similarly slide between hip-hop and r&b / soul. But this is a very slick set of songs, rather lacking in the previous playfulness – again, maturity – which renders these songs as very, very close to material you’d likely hear on the radio. This alone isn’t a slight (it’s rich stuff, with the live instrumentation from G Koop adding to that), but the way Dem and Ant combine is on some kind of wavelength that pulls from old and new soul to arrive at beats that are almost all, perhaps, too familiar. Nothing really grabs, just tickles a “hey, I’ve heard that before” bone and not straying from that, which, for all its flash, makes it rather predictsble sounding.
On to our emcee, then, who, in his mature guise, is nonetheless stuck at that age where singing about no one understanding him – in life, in relationships – is about as far as the thoughts go. Whethet rapping or singing, Dem has a few good lines, but there’s also a lot of repetition, and that none of the songs end up feeling like they’re actually saying much of anything, really (which, as mentioned before, I’d felt on MF Dem, but thought the format was the issue). Also, listening to this post assault allegations leveled at Dem, it’s hard not to scrutinize some of the shallowness / aggressiveness in the lyrics, but more fairly, they’re not so different from thoughts expressed by half a dozen other artists (taking from that what you will).
And so: sans the glitchier beats, and with a veneer of maturity, Dem Atlas delivers a totally listenable, pleasant, but ultimately forgettable album, lacking the “I wonder what’s next?” hooks of his preceding recordings.