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Jordan Rakei – Origin

How do you judge a musician on the work they release? Is it comparative to their growth as an artist, to the other work they’ve released? Or is it dependent on how the work subjectively fits into music as a whole? That is one of the defining issues with Jordan Rakei’s new album Origin. Although it is a great improvement over his earlier body of work, it is still only a step forward towards an end goal.

Back in 2013, Rakei self-released his debut EP, Franklin’s Room, a youthful collection of synthy keyboard and guitar with just his smooth voice binding it all together. Over the next few years, Rakei released a couple of albums and moved from Brisbane to England, but his music never really escaped this bedroom pop quality. That beginner’s mentality did lend a charm to some of those early recordings, letting Rakei play around with goofy ska rhythms and retro soul beats without taking himself too seriously. But on his albums that followed, 2016’s Cloak and 2017’s Wallflower, Rakei was able to maintain his charisma while developing a more polished and concise listen.

Today, Rakei is probably best known for his collaborations, including an appearance on the 2015 track “Masterpiece” off Disclosure’s lackluster sophomore album Caracal. That song benefited from Disclosure’s unique production and Rakei himself added some humanity and life to the track that helped to set it apart from the rest of the album. Rakei remains focused on his own discography, even confirming with Sungenre in a recent interview that he plans on releasing two more albums in the next three years. That’s a lofty goal, but listening to Origin, it’s no surprise that Rakei is so focused on the future.

The first thing you’ll notice about his latest album, no doubt, is the production. It is clean, modern and has the significant heft of a concept album. Lead-off track “Mad World” is a tight statement of intent, with catchy vocals and an ominous build-up that primes the listener for a louder and more complex album than what Rakei’s released in the past. The other songs follow by example, applying a dystopian theme throughout. Rakei uses Origin to juggle the topics of climate change, politics and most importantly, technology. In the aforementioned interview, he explained his views on the “mob mentality” of social media; “That’s the worry about technology… there’s no filter anymore, anyone can share information.”

The songs on Origin share in this uncertainty, specifically “Say Something”, whose bridge – “I was sick and tired of how they use our minds, I press rewind, I never press record” feels like it’s coming from someone who has been actively trying to limit their screen time. But the message on these songs is never favoured over the song itself and the instrumentation helps to propel Rakei’s lyricism, even at its most dark and beguiling. “Say Something” has a nice chirpy bass line to go along with its media message, while “Oasis” has a great staccato drum beat that adds to the overall uneasiness of the song. Rakei develops these nice little moments but also maintains a loose and improvisational feel that keeps the album from sounding formulaic.

The best moments on Origin are the most fun as well. When Rakei uses his upbeat funky side, he skirts any of his derivative tendencies and is able to develop stronger, more appealing verses. “Mind’s Eye”, “Rolling into One”, and “Moda” are the highlights, showing how buoyant and infectious he can make these songs. “Rolling into One” specifically has the most crossover appeal and would have made a great single. Origin does slow down a bit after the half-way point but still manages to have its moments.

“You & Me” first sounds a bit slight but its chorus is an undeniable ear worm and is only heightened by some great Thundercat-style synths and a loungey piano solo that comes in towards the end. These lighter moments help bring the charm and personality into Rakei’s work that was so evident on his earlier releases, especially on an album that focuses so heavily on its dark themes.

Rakei ends the album with a fully constructed and ingenious closer. “Mantra” lives up to its name through its repetition but manages to provide several great ideas that seem to naturally coalesce under Rakei’s duet with Frida Touray. The phrase they repeat is simple enough, “So sing with me this lullaby, you can’t say we don’t try,” but the meaning is subverted. Like any great mantra, by the end of the song the words don’t really mean anything, becoming as familiar as the requisite horn motif that follows, and helping to make this the best song on the album.

Origin is a solid album for Jordan Rakei, a professional statement from an artist who seems to be just beginning to show everything he has to offer. Here, Rakei has more confidence than most emerging artists, and is able to implement his lush production into a unified work of paranoid dark realism. Where his previous albums were introspective and personal, Rakei now funnels his frustration outward, taking on themes that are universal to our cultural identity. At its worst, this record feels like a stepping-stone toward a great release, but at its best, Origin is a fun and rich album and a demonstration of Rakei’s significant potential.