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Lo-Fi Beats to Chill/Dissociate To

On finding solace in a beat tape like Knxwledge’s ‘1988’ during quarantine

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Every week, Micah Peters surveys the world of music—from new releases to bubbling trends to anniversaries both big and obscure—and gives a few recommendations.

Smooth brain—a phenomenon in which the organ looks like a blob of raw chicken breast, without the shapeliness and definition of what’s typically seen in a brain—is a deformity caused by lissencephaly, a rare and fatal disease that causes individuals to, among other things, remain at a three-to-five-month developmental level. The shortened and all-lowercase “smoothbrain,” however, is internetspeak for a fugal haze characterized by unexplainable behavior, like overpaying for turnips on Animal Crossing or finding shitposts funnier than usual. Although it’s a distinctly online term, it can be an offline affliction. Forgetting to heat the saucepan before putting the oil in, pushing a door that says pull, waking up at 7:30 in the morning and not eating until noon—these would all be instances of smoothbrain.

“Smoothbrain” can be an insult, but more often, I find it’s used in a self-deprecating manner. Smoothbrain looks like idiocy but it functions like burnout—a workflow coagulant that makes rocket science of things you’ve done millions of times before. However, unlike burnout, where you feel simultaneously restless and exhausted, smoothbrain is more like your brain forcibly creating the effects of boredom after reaching a certain threshold of overstimulation. March has felt like the longest month in recorded human history because, as people have begun to shelter in place amid the coronavirus pandemic, daily life has moved almost entirely online, and time dilates on the internet. When you’re experiencing the world as a stream of push notifications, days of the week no longer feel like a useful designation, and just 72 hours ago qualifies as “a different time.”

Out last Friday, 1988 is the second formal release from Knxwledge, an underground beatsmith who’s not so underground anymore. It follows late January’s MEEK.VOL5, another installment in the producer’s ongoing remix series of old Meek Mill freestyles. I first listened to 1988 while standing in line to buy soy sauce, which I’d forgotten on the first trip to the supermarket. It’s great smoothbrain music, which is not a dig, even though it kinda sounds like one. Each Knxwledge project is like its own little imaginative universe: The album is 22 tracks jammed into 37 minutes of running time, a shifting collage of analog sounds and surprise vocals. It’s music that chases all the wild tangents for you, while your mind goes blank.

1988 is the Los Angeles–based producer’s first album proper in four years, and was announced with an A-side/B-side in mid-February, “learn/howtokope.” “Howtokope” begins with a backhanded compliment like the one above, a disembodied voice asserting that his thing is trap music, but fine, he’ll listen to Knxwledge. What follows is a repeated set of wailing vocals lifted from what sounds like a P-funk record. The vocals are pitched down, making them sound even more resigned. Which P-funk record, I have no idea—since he learned to chop samples with an SP-303 in his Sunday school years, Knxwledge has been amassing an Alexandrian library of demos, singles, church service recordings, and YouTube rips. Forming a very specific guess about a familiar voice or riff but not having quite enough information to confirm it one way or the other is part of the Knxwledge experience. However, unlike the seamless experience of 2015’s well-reviewed Hud Dreems, or any of the countless mixtapes released in the intervening time—Knxwledge has over 60 projects available for purchase on Bandcamp—1988 is more of an R&B album than a beat tape. It’s still mostly instrumental, but there are standout songs, like a buttery NxWorries reunion with Anderson .Paak, “itkanbe[sonice],” and “minding_my business,” a gospel R&B song featuring Durand Bernarr and RoseGold extolling the virtues of sitting there and eating your food that I’ve been obsessively listening to over the past few days.

Actually, “obsessively” implies an intentionality that wasn’t really there—dwelling on the church hymn that closes “minding_my business” and sounds a lot like Eddie Kendricks’s “Intimate Friends,” you might start the song over to see if you heard it right, and before you know it half an hour has passed. That’s the best thing about Knxwledge, which incidentally, typifies great smoothbrain music: He seizes on a great idea, but lets you be the one to linger on it.

Now for some recommendations:

“BestFrends,” Knxwledge

In addition to the obscure, last-crate-in-the-storeroom stuff that Knxwledge dredges up, he also flips more recognizable records, like Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa,” the faint outlines of which you can hear in “Tkekareofit,” or Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You,” which the producer reassembled into a fidgety space-age funk song. On 2011’s Hexual Sealings 1.5 EP there’s also “BestFrends,” which is somehow way more emotionally affecting than just “Amy Winehouse slowed down,” as one dismissive YouTube commenter put it.

“After I Die,” DJ Screw

The “screwed and chopped” DJ style was pioneered in the early 1990s by Robert Earl Davis Jr., who produced thousands of tapes between then and his death in 2000. He took his mentor Darryl Scott’s idea of playing 45 RPM records at 33 RPMs, added a 4-track to the process, and created an underground empire.

If you haven’t acquainted yourself with it, screw isn’t something I’d suggest just dipping your toes in—the 2 mph cruising speed the music moves at makes the listening experience entirely frictionless, so it’s pretty difficult to grab onto just one song. Screw music is best digested alongside other screw music, it almost doesn’t work any other way. So, yes, my recommending the longest, strangest song on All Screwed Up: Bigtyme Vol. II, Screw’s second official album, is nothing short of irresponsible.

“My Mind Went Blank” is sneakily one of the best things to come out of the Bigtyme Recordz machine, which also birthed UGK. Truthfully, “Blank” works better as a stand-alone than “After I Die”; it’s one of the few screw songs you could feasibly single out and drop into a playlist. And yet somehow, against all the odds, “After I Die,” which is over nine minutes long and feels like a loose variation on a Portishead song, is better smoothbrain music than “My Mind Went Blank.”

Mannie Fresh’s IG Live Bounce Set

As we continue, with some difficulty, to approximate human connection and nightlife online, IG Live has turned into … the radio? You’ll have seen various fans of rap music talking about “beat battles” online, which have been more like production credit battles than the stuff of the Summer Jam stage. Swizz Beatz and Timbaland demonstrate the size and depth of their oeuvre, Ne-Yo and Johnta Austin trade chart smashes, and occasionally, like during the Hit-Boy-Boi-1da battle, we’ll get previews of forthcoming music. Be on the lookout for a Drake and Roddy Ricch song, as well as a Detroit 2 single from Big Sean that rips open with a posthumous Nipsey Hussle verse.

Aside from D-Nice and a few others, not many people have really been DJing in the ficky-ficky sense, is what I’m getting at. This past Saturday, though, Mannie Fresh was blending Tears for Fears, Jacci McGhee, Anita Baker, and Juvenile into one of the best bounce sets I’ve laid ears on.

If you are an obsessed person who ripped this full set, bass-boosted it, and put it on SoundCloud, please DM me.

The “Belle Song,” Social Distancing Remix

Quarantine, Day 23.