Lewisham’s knob-twiddler extraordinaire, Kwes, after a string of lauded collaborations (including with The XX, Valentina and Micachu), mixtapes and reworks, is unveiling the solo outing we’ve been waiting yonks for. After a career spent largely behind the scenes on production duties, Kwes – real name Kwesi Sey – is gracing the proverbial centre court to parade his own material and extensive compositional skills. In the time he’s been behind the mixing desk, we’ve grown to know Kwes as an artist who cultivates a unique brand of noise, and on his debut foray, he expands upon what we’ve seen implied over the past few years.
On ilp. Kwes. serenades a comatose Big Smoke, summoning shards of obsidian synth, gallons of reverb and vagrant bass throbs. It’s urban. Not like you’d describe rap or R&B as “urban”, it’s more like the soundtrack to a city at 3AM when everyone except the seedy underbelly has gone into their domestic nests. It’s lit by the corn-husk glow of streetlights; jerky, shapeshifting shadows lurk around each beat. It’s semi-paranoid, semi-voyeuristic, almost omnipresent. Kwes cuts an everyman silhouette against red brick and soot-stained concrete. This is a record that’s deeply personal in many ways, but in a grander, more overt way, it’s for everyone who’s felt lost, by any definition, in the city.
Some cuts have already found their way to our ears. ‘Rollerblades’, for example. It’s intimate and juvenile, as if an ode to a childhood sweetheart – “I had to go and for dinner/all I could eat was there, because my patience grew thinner/I had to see you once again.” There are ’60s kids TV synths, distorted by a haze of celestial vapours, and a soft pitter-patter pad swirling like the beam of a lighthouse. In the yearning, there’s a surefire sweetness.
Though probably Kwes’ best known track gets a polish, ‘B_shf_l’ is still an angst-riddled adolescent anthem of infatuation. As with ‘Rollerblades’, he’s singing of a teenage love: “Will do my utmost to impress you/maybe make some money, buy a cream soda,” and “I know I’m really young to you but I want to prove/you may think what I say isn’t true,” are testament to that. The synths and dance-pop hooks are jiggled around, and though it’s had a bit of an edit, nothing’s majorly different, just updated.
Newer efforts, like present single ’36′, provide a variation on his idiosyncratic style. Deep post-dubstep bass pulses and and neo-soul vocals recalls James Blake or Ghostpoet – only slightly, mind. Kwes’ tones are warmer, and especially on ’36′, hark back the ’70s soul rather leaning on the ‘neo’ aspect. It’s a kind of retropunk sound, steeped in the past but poised to the future with twinkling galactic synths and dance beats. ‘Cablecar’ is enveloped in a delirious Alice In Wonderland mist – it’s fantastical and grandiose, but retains a malice. ‘Hives’ thwomps with cyclonic beats and a fragile Sunday-morning guitar riff; it’s fractured and twisted, and Kwes turns something tranquil into a juddering, morphing electro-pop paean.
Kwes proves on ilp. that he is more than capable standing in front the microphone, just as he is behind it. It’s often difficult for artists to make the transition, but it feels like this is exactly where he’s been heading, and that all of the groundwork released prior was just to help set the scene. His debut is equal parts romance, darkness and existentialism. He tells tales – either from memory or imagination – of love and life, but the ephemera surrounding his words convey a loneliness that comes with being anonymous in the city. It’s ambitious, even expansive, in scope, despite the introspection his lyrics communicate, and even if it wasn’t the intention, he provides an incredible snapshot of urban life through the lens of love and brittle electro-soul.