Hak Baker – Conundrum

I have a ritual. Divulging it may help countenance the way we interact with music on the enormous, inescapable digital platforms—Spotify, in this case—or it may just add more noise to the whirlpooling soundscape of the internet. Like the book and film industries, most new music (singles, LPs, EPs) is officially released on Fridays. Spotify capitalizes on this through its prominently-placed New Music Friday playlist. It’s an effective if scattershot showcase of the newest big-label, big-artist songs accompanied by a slew of algorithmically selected tracks based on your listener profile. But I’m skeptical of algorithms. And I still like the relatively safe spaces of albums; whereas a playlist categorically defined by the newness of the seven-day drop cycle, computer learning software be damned, hop scotches too much from genre and tempo on play-through.

Maybe, I’ll admit, I even like the skeuomorphic renders that scrolling through the cover art of the new albums and singles presents. The tiles offer a glimpse into the personality behind each project; their arraignment a concession to how much the labels pay Spotify for top-of-the-list preference. So, I stay up on Thursday evenings and wait for the New Releases tab to update. (More often than not, this doesn’t happen at the stroke of 12:01 am, but hours later during the morning rush hours.) Regardless, sometimes, in this digital crate digging exercise, I find something worth pilfering for my own playlists. At other moments, I scratch my head and hate-judge whoever thought the new Mount Kimbie album was deserving to rest on the ocean floor of this sea of sound.

If you’ve never before clicked the Browse tab then this all might sound like quaint idiosyncratic behavior. But if you do and you have feelings about how music is presented to and consumed via Spotify, then you would be surprised to know that even at my most untrusting of Spotify’s transparent attempt at personalized playlists such as New Music Friday, worthwhile music can be had on the Discover tab (even if you only go there out of laziness or accident or pretension: “How misguided are these recommends going to be?”) as well. But a rose by any other name is still a rose.

This is how I came across the work of Hak Baker.

**

Despite his thin output, I knew Baker’s lullabying tune “Conundrum” was perfect for a playlist I continue to invest stupid amounts of energy on and whose architecture is built around the idea “What else would you listen to if you loved Frank Ocean and hip-hop?” “Conundrum,” an unsentimental look at life in East London, is just voice and acoustic guitar. A simple formula that has worked well-enough for the Amy Winehouses and Chris Martins of the world. The lyrics have depth and surprising diction while the guitar playing is reminiscent of third-week-of-YouTube-music-lessons skill. Baker’s voice is, however, palpable, clarifying, almost sad.

**

I bring my belief in fortuitous circumstances to my playlists. By the Sunday after the most recent new music releases, I had managed to add, including “Conundrum,” seven new tracks. The day had started off slowly as I tried to slough off the dull feeling that hung around me following the previous night’s tennis and dancing and a number of pulls from a bottle of Jameson that was also seven in number if not more. Actually, I was supplementing my taking-life-into-account state of affairs with a reckoning of Neil Young. Apparently, the old man’s catalog is now on Spotify and I was searching for a specific live album a friend had played for me on his record player on another, whiskey-soaked Saturday. It’s there, I’m sure, but I needed to get outside at least once today. (The ways in which I wasn’t being productive were staggering: The articles I needed to write, the emails waiting to escape the “drafts” folder wasn’t getting any slimmer, and I began this post in a devil may care manner. Wasting time, right here, right now.) So, at no later than 10 pm, I made my way to a slice joint on the other side of the highway that deals in half-cuts upon request. An easy 15-minute walk from my Brooklyn neighborhood.

**

It’s worth mentioning that this pizza shop is heavy-metal themed and when I got there, early Black Sabbath was playing loudly and two drunk on life (also beer) patrons were debating which of the pizza-punned t-shirts to get. Each black tee features a screen-printed front in the style of classic metal album covers and they’re all great. Because superstition is leashed to low expectations, I couldn’t grin any more dumbly or widely at my fortune. This would be the third time I ordered half-slices and got full ones instead. Rarely do I place much stock in my propensity to not speak loudly, but there I was, walking home the winner of a twofer. Superstition, too, harbors an appreciation of luck no matter its scale. The playlist switched to shuffle and what could be described as an unfair sequence of 5 songs played back to back. It was as unfair as the starting lineup of the Los Angeles Dodgers, though that simile may not hold as the majority of these artists were British.

**

“Conundrum” kicked it off and, while I was toting my pizza beneath an underpass, Rex Orange County’s “Paradise” began afterward. Belonging to the hangover genre of songs, it makes a good case for not drinking beer to get drunk just because everyone else is which felt particularly relatable right then. From Rex’s first album, which is emblematic of the best efforts of bedroom producers, “Paradise” is mostly deep bass notes and an unstellar drum machine behind which synthesizer keys fade in and out. Then, after the song’s abrupt ending, was the comparatively expertly-produced “Laidback” by Rat Boy. In this case, the upbeat song finds the British youth expressing a love for someone whom he can’t directly express that to emphatically. So, just as the song title heavily features in the refrain, Rat Boy needs to occupy the premier emotional state and posture of Western millennials: chill. Who isn’t chill as much as she’s cavalier is Jessie Reyez. This song, a would-be bold choice for karaoke, is called “Fuck It” and Jessie’s attitude wavers between a spoken-poetry aspect to a roll call of “Fuck It”s. The track came to my attention via another sort of algorithm: Daniel Caesar’s Instagram Story. He was riding in an Uber as it played on the radio if I remember correctly, again underscoring my hunch that many things are possibly better in Canada. The next and final song was the most clever cover of 2016: Sunni Colon’s interpretation of “Black Hole Sun,” the anthemic Soundgarden song that is likewise the best about heroine since “Beast of Burden.” Colon’s airy track reworks the chorus of the grunge-era hit to a dance floor juke. That is, dancing in the way that “F.U.B.U.” by Solange is a dance track—they both share a bass and bump that engenders creative movement.

**

On a street corner near my apartment, three books were left atop a garbage can for recyclables. (It’s all very Brooklyn, I know.) The books seemed relatively clean and I took two titles: A short story collection by the late Denis Johnson and a large history of Lewis and Clark by Stephen Ambrose. Balancing this all and jiggering my keys into the doors I needed to pass through to get home, I had my hands full.

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