Kwesi Sey, better known as Kwes, is an artist of two parts, but those two parts seem to exist simultaneously, with the result that his music is remarkably distinctive but entirely cohesive. On one hand, he’s a writer of pop songs that deal with the traditional subjects of pop music – many of them are love songs – but on the other hand, he’s an experimentalist who has produced for The xx and DELS, remixed Damon Albarn and Zero 7, and played keys for Bobby Womack. The fact that he’s a pop artist signed to Warp is perhaps the best way of summing up what he does: he’s constantly pushing the envelope, but his music has a comforting, familiar – and indeed an enveloping – feel.
36 is the most quintessentially pop song included on his debut album, ilp, and it’s a beauty. Based around a lazily loping bass and a piano riff that could be a slowed down Balearic vamp it’s upbeat without being too showy. But Kwes is not afraid to strip everything back to the bare minimum; during the opening verse, his vocals are backed only by the drums and an abbreviated bassline.
Cablecar is the most prolonged experiment of the album, and it’s also one of the most successful. Like several of ilp’s songs, it begins with slightly hazy vocals and a steady beat, before woozy synths and elements of atonality drag the song off in a totally new direction. There’s then a sudden pause. “It’s very quiet up here,” a female vocal says. It’s followed by an indistinct response, before a heavy but muted bassline cuts through the calm. There’s a second lull further through, so that the track amounts to eight minutes of dubstep-influenced synth-pop split into three sections, each delivered at a slightly different level of intensity, and adding to something gloriously glacial, but tremoring as if with rumours of an avalanche.
The second half of the album is quieter and less busy. It’s surely deliberate that the tracks seem to blur into each other, alternating between slow pop songs and ambient instrumentals. Sometimes the vocals seem to owe something to RnB slow jams, but the lyrics tend towards the bluntly confessional, and are at times delivered in a strikingly matter-of-fact tone. “I want to sleep and never awake / Because I’m tired and my heart is broke,” Kwes sings on Broke. Chagall is a skewed and rhythmless mixture of synths and samples that’s reminiscent of the alternative electronica of Oneohtrix Point Never and the witch house subgenre. It’s the second song Kwes has released that’s named after an artist (his Meantime EP began with a track entitled Klee) and this is perhaps a reflection of his synaesthesia.
Despite all the experimentation, there’s something very authentic about every track here. Many of them might be unorthodox experimental pop songs, but there’s nothing self-conscious about them, and all the effects and unexpected structures seem to be nothing but completely honest expressions of what Kwes is trying to say. This is reinforced by the charming mundanity of some of the lyrics: in Rollerblades, for example, his inline skating partner tells him not to let go, but, just at the moment when all superfluous instrumentation is stripped away, he tells us: “Unfortunately I did, because I had to go in for dinner.”
A full length album from Kwes might be a sign that his focus is shifting from producing and remixing other musicians to creating his own music. Where an artist as eclectic and unpredictable as this might go next is anybody’s guess, but on the basis of this quietly spectacular album, it’s likely that listeners will be more than happy to follow him into the unknown.