“Part of the last generation that will remember going online for the first time.”
This sentence from the press release about James Hinton’s aka The Range’s latest album Potential stuck with me like a blinking GIF on an otherwise blank screen. At 27, Hinton is practically the same age as me (I turned 28 yesterday, natch), and this is a sentiment I had just been reasoning through with an older friend, who experienced the advent of the Internet it in a different way. To him, the rise of the Internet occurred in adulthood, was just another form in a rapidly changing world. To me, the Internet was an advent of adolescence, tied in may ways to the way I shaped my still-forming identity. In a conversation with the Verge, Hinton described himself as a “digital detective,” a fantastic way to self-identify, and a great phrase to describe anyone who scours the Internet for new, or even as-yet-unknown music. This practice used to be the role of journalists and bloggers, but now, it seems artists are taking on the role of curator for themselves more often than ever before.
Or maybe it goes further than that; it’s that the urge to create–artistry itself–can’t help but be influenced by the influx of lost information that lurks in the corners of Online. This is different than the lonely guitarist in a bar outside the city, the random busker who can play a saxophone like it’s made of liquid gold–all of this potential is frozen in time, accessible at any moment. The surging endlessness of the Internet is why we’re all here, sifting through to find something that speaks to us. We can curate what we experience via these screens with the hope that it will help us understand our physical reality, the outside world which we can’t control at all. Hinton’s new album Potential encompasses all these feelings and more, it thrums on a deep melancholy built almost entirely off samples of publicly shared but widely unknown musicians from all over the globe.
Potential is Hinton’s second full-length album, following up 2013’s Nonfiction and a 2014 EP Panasonic, and despite the title, it is an album that listens like a realization unfolded. A physics graduate from Brown, the Brooklyn-based musician’s approach to music is both ardent and mathematical. In that same interview with the Verge he invokes Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to discuss the way his project will undo the very obscurity he sought out in the artists he sampled. But his empathy is even more revelatory: each featured artist gets their own shares of publishing rights. The math he enacts here is one of a restorative nature, an attempt to imbue the pilfering cult of internet-sensation-culture-building with some equality. These philosophical aspects stick with me while I listen, but in the end, the musicianship is what elevates this from digital science project to work of art.
There is a gentleness here that is a hallmark of my favorite electronic musicians–shoutout to Caribou, an influence that Potential invokes in more ways than one. It’s unsurprising to learn that Hinton has a deep appreciation for artists like Bruce Hornsby. He can easily incorporate that kind of tender wispiness alongside footwork and triplet influences, introducing devastated bass lines to poignant, doe-eyed vocalists and then facilitating a real connection between the two. The second to last track “So” sticks out to me on every listen. Lyrically, it is composed of a single word, and turns that word into a hymn, a vow, mussing its hair until so has said more than a declaration of love, a line full of imagist poetry. Potential realizes the fully hypnotizing power of digital ephemera, it has no true form, it can assume whatever we want to make it into. I listen to “So” and make it into a love song; for others, it could be a moment of grief, carelessness, or certainty.
Like his previous work, there are more than scant traces of grime and UK artists; multiple times an insistent British voice shows up to rap over fluttering, tearstained production. It feels like an interruption, a sharp reminder of the voices we often don’t hear purposefully grounded in tranquility. The most moving of these voices comes on opener “Regular,” when London MC SdotStar examines his chances of “making it,” and what that movement would even entail. Later, about halfway through the album on “Five Four,” a waterfall of disappointment and broken dreams spill from the lips of another unknown MC across teasing, ominous production. Then, the gut punch: Maybe that’s my fault. Emotions are taut even when the music is calm.
On “Copper Wire” Kruddy Zak raps about devastating emotion in 2009, and interviews reveal that both Zak and Hinton experienced the death of a loved one that year. This is the kind of unlikely universality we can find inside the Internet, maybe, that we even actively search for it. Is it possible that I am not alone in my exquisite brand of pain? I don’t think that was a conscious thought I had when I first went online, but unconsciously, it is loneliness that drives most of us to search through this big, beautiful web for something, anything, to prove that we’re not alone, to prove that we could still connect. That’s the potential Hinton is teasing out here. The realization of it, is that he succeeds.
Potential is out 3/25 via Domino Records. Get it here.