Published Jun 04, 2020It was a bit of a surprise when Baauer followed up "Harlem Shake" (a somewhat gimmicky collection of trap and bass clichés mostly remembered for the endless supply of user-generated videos it spawned in early 2013) with Aa, his excellent 2016 debut. Full of slamming beats and distinctive found sound details, the album proved far subtler than the big dumb drop that everybody and their grandma was sharing for a few months. It also had a healthy share of guest vocalists capitalizing on Baauer's party instincts for some great collabs — something Planet's Mad, the American artist's sophomore effort, notably lacks. It makes for a frankly less fun and memorable album, but Baauer remains a master of the big party moment, and some of these are red hot.
The brief snippet of "Harlem Shake" featured in the memes that kick-started Baauer's career is basically a crystallization of what he does best — that pause before everything erupts — and once again there are more than a few excellent examples of this strength on Planet's Mad, with impeccable drops and massive beats that almost command you to alter your body's rhythms.
It's the middle sections, between these culminating moments, that can sometimes feel a bit limp. These are bars that, on Aa, would have boasted a vocal, but here too often just drag by while we wait for the next big drop. Baauer's trademark sprinkling of found sound elements in the background (nature-scapes, various off-kilter cracklings and rustlings) does lend these in between moments a unique authorial stamp, thickening things and sometimes adding cool and unexpected polyrhythms, but it's not always enough.
That's not to say there aren't any voices on the album. Energetic samples are woven liberally throughout, sitting next to the giant beats in a way often reminiscent of old-school, hip-hop-favouring big beat of the '90s, but with a modern trap and bass flourishes. It's a mix that comes together brilliantly sometimes (the slamming drumline rhythms and rousing exhortations of "Reachupdontstop" being a particular highlight, the block-rocking snare of follow-up "Hot 44" a close second), but elsewhere it's hard not to hear the cues where a sweet vocal might go, like we're missing out on a potentially more full artistic vision that got pared down for reasons unknown.
Some artists just thrive better in the collab booth, and while there are some undeniable party-starters here, and a base-level banging-ness that's hard to ignore, Planet's Mad suggests Baauer might be one of them. Playing to your strengths is never a bad idea. (Lucky Me)