KAYTRANADA was a musical omnivore before it was cool. The Canadian producer and DJ, born Louis Celestin, made his name throughout the last decade on sultry rhythms and chirpy synths coalescing in the space where hip-hop, R&B, house, and diasporic music dutifully collide. In an era where genre-blending has become more popular than ever, KAYTRANADA can claim status as one of the first drops of water in an increasingly amorphous bucket.
For all the remixes KAYTRANADA has created, and the world tours he’s headlined, it’s easy to forget the 27-year-old only has one album to his name. His 2016 Polaris Prize-winning debut 99.9%, released through XL Recordings, was a kaleidoscopic experience, pulling grooves from every corner of the map to create a musical collage as beautiful as its cover art.
Sophomore album BUBBA, releasing today through RCA Records, comes highly anticipated after three years of relative silence. It’s time to hit the dance floor and see what KAYTRANADA has been sitting on.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: No skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Every song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
1. “DO IT”
The house grooves are apparent. A vocal sample saying “Do it!” sounds like James Brown. Shaking bells, hand drums, and singing voices keep a steady groove. “DO IT” is a proper reintroduction to KAYTRA’s sound. Not explosive, but enchanting nonetheless.
2. “2 the Music” (feat. Iman Omari)
Keys gliding over programmed drums and dreamy synths. Here’s the KAYTRANADA I was expecting. Is that Iman Omari on the vocals? Always good to hear him singing, though I’m more familiar with his production work. Why haven’t they worked together before? This record is new-age Soul Train line music. The lyrics are quite simple, but no one goes out onto the dance floor to think too hard. A four-on-the-floor groove for 20-somethings and their aunties alike. Nice outro with a slick bassline. A keeper.
3. “Go DJ” (feat. SiR)
And we’re right into the next one. SiR! Inglewood’s finest representing early. Man, these drums are snapping. “Baby I ain’t got no time for fake love.” “Go DJ” treats the DJ club atmosphere as a religious experience. Leave it to SiR to thread a love story into a carefree environment. He’s slipping in and out of these synths and drums. Yep, the grooves are back. KAYTRANADA’s sound is sturdy but versatile. Another keeper.
4. “Gray Area” (feat. Mick Jenkins)
KAYTRA and Mick Jenkins always make for a great song. Their loosie “What Am I To Do?” was underappreciated. Oh, he’s... Singing? Not what I expected to hear. He’s experimenting; I respect it. KAYTRA’s drums sound like they’re coming out of speakers on the verge of breaking. I’m not sure about Mick singing about love. It doesn’t suit his style. His bars are always more engaging. The beat rides, though.
5. “Puff Lah”
The boom and the clap. Simple and effective. Here’s a beat built for either a rapper or a singer to attack. I almost wish Mick was on this song instead. If nothing else, KAYTRA’s albums are supremely well-sequenced, like a living radio station. These drums are so unpredictable, and the groove is undeniable. You could catch a dutty wine or a lapdance to this one. There’s versatility in the lust. Over already? I wish “Puff Lah” was longer. Somebody send Tyler, The Creator this beat pack.
6. “10%” (feat. Kali Uchis)
Every KAYTRA collab makes a case for itself immediately. Kali Uchis should’ve happened a couple of years ago. She came through with the ultimate kiss-off: “You keep on takin’ from me, but where’s my 10%?” These drums have so much body. They’re melting into the synths. I see why “10%” was chosen as a single. This record is ready for any DJ set. Solid.
7. “Need It” (feat. Masego)
An ascending staircase of a beat. Masego is here! This performance is the inverse of Mick’s feature; Masego is rapping with melodies, as opposed to singing with rapper cadences. KAYTRANADA is trying to take artists out of their comfort zones on BUBBA. Maesgo’s risk paid off much better than Mick’s. His voice blends in with the background enough for him to become just another instrument in the ensemble. Not at all what I expected, but I’m not mad. Could’ve used a little sax, though.
8. “Taste” (feat. VanJess)
These beats are little more than synths and drum patterns with a few embellishments, and somehow, KAYTRA manages to keep you guessing. It’s deceptively simple but punchy. As long as my feet are moving. VanJess is having a great time, and the energy is infectious. I’m bouncing all over my couch. A roller rink jam, if I’ve ever heard one. Another interlude, more mellow this time.
9. “Oh No” (feat. Estelle)
One thing KAYTRA’s deal with RCA ensured is access to is AAA guest features. I’ve always wondered what KAYTRA and the lead Crystal Gem Estelle would sound like. A merengue rhythm before Estelle takes the mic. Her voice is so smooth—when she wants it to be. She’s come a long way from “American Boy.” I can’t hear her voice without picturing Garnett from Steven Universe, but she’s showing out in a reserved way. “Oh No” is luxury hotel lounge house music without the invasive bellhop. Not a powerhouse song but a solid one.
10. “What You Need” (feat. Charlotte Day Wilson)
So far, BUBBA sounds like an album being played from different sections of the same club. Every beat is giving me some shade of blue. “What You Need” is a deep navy blue groove. Charlotte Day Wilson is lifting on these vocals. Why have I never heard a KAYTRANADA song on a show like Insecure or Atlanta before? This record is music consultant gold. These harmonies are speaking to my soul. I have ascended. Truly a standout.
11. “Vex Oh” (feat. Goldlink, Eight9Fly, & Ari Pensmith)
Opening with some harder drums. The polyrhythms are nuts. KAYTRANADA’s style is so easy on the ears. Every groove is deep and flavorful. A voice buried in the mix. Eight9Fly and Ari Pensmith work well in this environment. I’m still mad at Goldlink about his Mac Miller “letter,” but he’s bobbing and weaving through this beat. A solid song.
12. “Scared To Death”
Another solo instrumental. “Scared To Death” sounds like the colorful visualizers you could summon on iTunes. If a lava lamp could hold an electric charge, it would look like this song sounds. I like this. No rapper or singer could do this beat justice. Good on KAYTRA for letting this one breathe.
13. “Freefall” (feat. Durand Bernarr)
Seamless transitions are always a nice touch. You can tell KAYTRA is a DJ. Durand Bernarr sounds like he’s falling through a sea of satin-lined sheets. I can’t place my finger on why, but this record is Black as fuck. It sounds like shea butter love. A lot of these tracks are on the shorter side, especially compared to 99.9%. But “Freefall” is a stoooooone groove, baby.
14. “Culture” (feat. Teedra Moses)
After his amazing remix of Teedra Moses’ “Be Your Girl,” I’ve been wondering how they’d sound working together on a song. So far, like red bottoms sliding across one of those floor pianos. “This is not a life; it’s a culture, nigga.” Teedra has so much style. “Culture” might be edging out “What You Need” as my favorite vocal feature on the album so far. The swelling strings at the end are a nice touch. KAYTRANADA is the bridge. Another standout.
15. “The Worst In Me” (feat. Tinashe)
One thing I’ve noticed is the lack of rap-leaning production. KAYTRA is known to dabble in samples every once in a while, but he decided to keep it strictly R&B and house. I’m not mad. Another heavy hitter with Tinashe, likely recorded before she parted ways with RCA earlier this year. She’s coming in over a beat suitable for Tina Turner. Tinashe fell back into her pocket on her last album, Songs For You, and she brought the same energy to this verse. “Every time you fall asleep / I finally feel like it’s peace of mind.” Harsh. Her lover brings out the worst in her. This beat is bringing out the best in her.
16. “September 21”
These palette cleansers are appreciated. While I have a free minute to think, I wanna hear what a fully KAYTRA-produced rap album would sound like. His Instrumental Hip-Hop Is Dead mixtape is a gem. I hear the kind of old-school flair that he brought to songs like Wiki’s “3 Stories,” and Mick Jenkins’ “What Am I To Do?” and it makes me wonder. KAYTRA needs to send a kite over to Blu, Future, or J Hus. Better yet, come full circle on the Janet Jackson remix of “Girl” and make a song with Janet! Okay, back on track.
17. “Midsection” (feat. Pharrell Williams)
He’s bringing us home with Pharrell over what sounds like an underwater block party. P’s falsetto hasn’t sounded this sharp in a while. I could give less than one whole shit about what he’s saying; he sounds amazing. A breakdown with handclaps and acoustic piano keys. “I know I’ve seen power when I’ve seen her midsection.” “Midsection” is a vibe. A nice closing track. I was expecting something a little showier than this for the big Pharrell-KAYTRA linkup, but I’m not surprised. It’s more Straw-Ber-Rita than hard liquor. I accept. One more beat to ride us out for the last minute. KAYTRA deserves his own radio station in Grand Theft Auto. Everything blends in his world.
Final (First-Listen) Thoughts on KAYTRANADA’s BUBBA
If 99.9% was a candy-colored experiment created to feel out KAYTRANADA’s various interests, then BUBBA is a refinement toward the smoother end of his creative spectrum. Epic bangers like “Glowed Up” and “Lite Spots” are few and far between. BUBBA is preoccupied with mid-tempo grooves that settle in the bones and coax wall-huggers to the dance floor. This album is magic hour music, the songs you’ll hear playing while searching for a body to cozy up with during the last call.
As vibrant as the guest vocalists are, this is undeniably KAYTRANADA’s show. His trademark polyrhythms and synths dance at a steadier rate, leading to a less eclectic but more confident sound. He still favors the kind of seamless song-to-song transitions standard to any good DJ set, creating an album he wants us to experience front-to-back. Meanwhile, interlude beats serve as morsels of his other talents.
It may be less varied than its predecessor, but BUBBA is a testament to how far KAYTRANADA can stretch his pet sound. BUBBA is the music of a beat-maestro settling into his most reliable pocket. I’ll dance to that.