It's a common fantasy that many of us share: the chance of seeing through the eyes of someone with a unique and gifted perception of the world.
Lately, I've been wanting to see through the eyes of Kwesi Sey, also known as "Kwes." Sey has chromesthesia—a neurological disposition in which sound is associated, in the mind's eye, with colour. For such unique individuals, our polychromatic world is already embedded with song. Or, at least, with tonal structures. And the reverse is also true: music is already a quasi-visual art, built from complicated gradients and hues that play in the periphery of their view.
As a producer and multi-instrumentalist, chromesthesia has been good to Sey. At the hoary age of 26, he's collaborated with the xx and Bobby Womack, among numerous others, and reworked portions of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's "Monkey." He gained massive, instant caché for being sampled by the mighty Kanye on a Pusha T track. More notable, though, have been a series of EPs under his own name. Calling artists "composers" is a pretentious tendency of the laptop set. In the case of Kwes, however, the label is probably accurate. He is very much a composer. And if one saw sound as he does, one might suspect him of being a strange sort of painter as well.
Much of "ilp," his new full-length album, feels painterly. This would be, in part, because elements are brought together in compositions and not (gasp) in patterns. Themes come and go, without necessarily being repeated. Much like classical music, the songs seem to privilege space over time. Electronica's dependence on the build and release of tension is unnecessary for Kwes. His arrangements seem to have enormous room in them, and only a notional pacing. Maybe this is because they are still absolutely organic in their conception. At root, "ilp" still feels like it was made by singing and playing a keyboard. For this reason, Sey's output doesn't suffer the cramped feel of tracks built on Ableton grids or loop sequences.
In the best of Kwes' compositions, musical ideas show up with different personalities. They announce themselves, they sneak in, or (like a familiar character) casually drop by. This is the hallmark of what Sey calls "Free Pop," a loose working frame that, to greater and lesser degrees, refers back to R&B conventions. It's an interesting idea, especially given that pop is one of the most formulaic—that is, least free—forms of music. On tracks like "36" and "B_shf_l," this oxymoronic approach works perfectly. The song structure is there, but Sey lets it evolve into a series of alternating lines that grow in interest while maintaining a pretty much constant level of intensity.
On "Cablecar," he pulls the formula so far apart that sweet, lurching pauses appear before every snare hit. It's proof of his talent that these seem like the most relevant thing in the song.
Being a composer is not the same as being a song writer, however. Sometimes, Kwes excels at one while duffing the other. His permissive structures don't always gel, and when the parts don't captivate, the whole thing maunders. There are parts of "llp" that just don't work. Or rather they work dramatically less well than on "Meantime," his previous EP. "Rollerblades," which is about—yes—a romantic rollerblading lesson, falls into this category. To be fair, it's a summertime urban nostalgia jam, which has long been R&B's most boring sub-genre. Even Frank Ocean couldn't work it, and if you've heard the Coldplay samples on "Strawberry Swing," you know how hard he's tried.
It is in these lesser tracks, though, that you realize just how difficult Kwes' Free Pop is to pull off. It depends, largely, on the combination of musical intelligence with the extreme gentleness of Seys' persona. If the songs weren't great, his faux-naif pose would be too cute by half. As it is, much of "llp" is perfect, and, miraculously, does not become cloying. In 2013, it feels like a glorious still-point among the macho bombast and consumerist sexing-up of most pop music.
Kwes proves that you can speak loudly by being quiet. This doesn't mean that he only shines against the vulgarity of the Miley Moment, however. His world of colour feels like an expanded view that is just beginning to come into focus.