Rather than club music or urban music, Loraine James says that first and foremost, she produces ‘experimental music’. And though Reflection kicks off in relatively straightforward fashion with the bouncy lo-fi garage of ‘Built to Last’, which sounds archetypal of James’ North London roots, things soon meander off in varied unexpected directions.
Reflection is the belated follow-up to her much-lauded debut album, For You and I, which channelled multiple disparate influences in a fresh and bold exploration of James’ experience growing up in Enfield, North London. The result was an uncategorisable mix of grime, dubstep, broken beats and layered electronics. As well as being shaped by the urban sounds of London, much was made of the influence of classic ‘IDM’ artists like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin. Though to my ears the glitched-out beats and cut-up bursts of noise sounded more akin to the DIY electronica scene that flourished in San Francisco’s Bay Area in the early 00s around artists like Kid606 and Matmos. Either way, For You and I turned on curious listeners all over the shop and ended 2019 as something of a sleeper hit.
Reflection was inevitably shaped by the year lost to the pandemic, after 2020 had looked all set to be James’ breakthrough. Instead, like everyone, she was confined to her bedroom. This proved to be both a blessing and curse, prompting a period of anxiety, isolation and self-doubt as well as prolific creativity during which she recorded dozens of new tracks. As well as the circumstances of its creation, Reflection can’t help but be shaped more broadly by James’ experiences as a young, black and gay female artist in what is still a massively white/male/hetero dominated scene. Not to mention the other upheavals of last year, which saw a new generation confronting the issues of race and what it means to be Black and British with a vigour turbo-charged by the BLM movement.
It may come as a surprise then, that Reflection wears all these weighty issues of identity, being and purpose lightly. It’s a sprightly, unpredictable record driven most of all by Loraine James’ beat-making skills, closely followed by her subtle way with layered melodies and varied selection of vocal collaborations.
Perhaps reflecting her uncertain state of mind when writing the record, James’ beats tend to sound like they’re finding their way as they go along. ‘Let’s Go’ pairs staccato drum hits with equally jerky synth stabs, in what sounds like a curious resurfacing of mid 00s glitch-hop among the urban landscape of post-pandemic London. On ‘Simple Stuff’, the refrain “I like the simple stuff, we like the simple things – what does that bring?” is alternately pitched-up and down among the relics of a dubstep beat. As another example of an unexpected influence popping up, the half-spoken half-rapped vocals calls to mind the sprechgesang delivery of Tricky, another restlessly experimental artist who stalked urban music’s dark hinterland.
Rather than a weakness, Reflection makes a strength of its uncertainty. On the stand-out, ‘Self Doubt (Leaving the Club Early)’ James addresses listeners directly, inviting them to press the skip button if they “don’t like this one”. As the track unfolds, the sputtering chiptune bleeps give way to an expansive synth melancholy and James switches from half-speaking to half-singing, about her own experiences playing live and hurrying home from the club straight after playing a set.
A little over halfway through, the dreamy ‘On the Lake Outside’, featuring Los Angeles-based electronic producer Baths, serves as an interlude and aural palette cleanser. Rather than acting as a springboard for a rapper’s lyrics, here James’ beats collide with Will Wiesenfeld’s hazily treated vocals that slip and slide among droning synths. The sun-drenched vocals set the track apart from the rest of the album and suggest a new microgenre – glitchwave, anyone? – though James’ beats are on point as always, rhythmically unpredictable and so tactile you can feel them bouncing out of the speakers.
As with any artist who brings together unexpected and disparate elements into their music, James runs the risk of alienating each camp. I’m sure there are many who’d have preferred an album solely comprised of tracks like ‘Change’ – full of awkwardly lurching beats and ominous synths – more Autechre than Rinse FM. There’s no denying that Reflection will keep you on your toes, but the whole experience is infused with James’ signature wonky beats and off-kilter melodies that it still feels like a unified work, albeit one unsure of its own identity.
And Reflection keeps you guessing until the end. ‘Running Like That’ would’ve been an obvious choice for album closer, Eden Samara’s angelic vocals are cut-up and layered over a lo-fi beat, making it the most lushly melodic and easiest on the ear. Rather than stopping there though, things close with ‘We’re Building Something New’. Featuring vocals by Iceboy Violet, whose delivery is so heavy with emotion it sounds as though he’s on the verge of tears, recounting an ode to “victims of police violence” laden with biblical metaphors. It’s a thoughtful and urgent end to proceedings that pings you back to reality and almost knocks the stuffing out of the rest of the album.
I have to admit that prior listening to Reflection, and having got the impression that this was ‘yet another lockdown album’, I felt a slight sense of weariness. But although there are scattered references to the isolation and anxiety shared by so many over the last year, Reflection doesn’t feel constrained by the circumstances of its birth. Rather, as we move into an uncertain new phase, with nightclubs and venues still remaining stubbornly off-limits, Reflection feels like an appropriate soundtrack, imbued as it is with doubt, angst, but also hope for the future.