Jlin - Autobiography
by Tom Graham
Footwork is a genre of music and dance born in Chicago that evolved from the booty house sound of juke and ghetto-house. Its hyper-speed percussion and off-kilter syncopation is fundamentally driven by the way people dance to footwork, with ‘footwork battles’ displaying gravity-defying routines as surrounding spectators watch in awe. Despite the wide range of young talent in the scene, footwork has been largely defined by the influence of just a few ringleaders – is difficult to ignore the legacy of artists like RP Boo, DJ Clent and (the late) DJ Rashad, who have helped shape footwork’s twisting and turning sound. However, Indiana-born artist Jlin has slowly begun to establish her own unique voice within footwork, veering away from hip-hop and trap influences towards more frantic and visceral elements. Filled with stuttering snare rolls and skipping hi-hats, her volatile beat patterns sound like footwork on speed, as shown by the video for her 2017 track ‘Carbon 7 (161)’, in which a dancer’s contorted body is possessed by hysterical percussion. If footwork is, by its very nature, based on the movement of bodies, then Jlin’s dramatic, body-propelling sound makes it perfect for the mind-bending choreography of ballet.
Autobiography is the score for Wayne McGregor’s contemporary-dance production of the same name. The central idea behind the ballet is that of personal history – McGregor had his individual genome sequenced by scientists, who then converted it into a computer algorithm that determined the ordering of the production’s 23 dance sections. The dancers performed a different sequence of dances each night and their movements were determined by McGregor’s biological identity. Much in the same way, Jlin imposes a palpable sense of motion onto the listener. Her distinctive sound has ensured her position as an exciting producer in the footwork scene and given her music a force that propels it forward with innovative artistry. ‘Unorthodox Elements’ features chopped, gasping vocal samples that sit above rhythmically disorientating drums. A male voice occasionally interjects with “aggressive physicality”, “one event is preceded by another”, and “coordination”, as if he were a sports coach overseeing the track’s test of athleticism. This mimicking of dancers is also achieved by the elegant ‘Carbon 12’, its cascading marimbas and light-footed piano melodies locked in a chase made even more exciting by Jlin’s seemingly sporadic snare hits.
Jlin creates gracefulness elsewhere on Autobiography, showing signs of expanding her palette beyond the nightmarish intensity of her first two albums, Dark Energy and Black Origami. Although her twisted drum rolls and heavy use of syncopation carry over from her previous work, she adds a more elegant side to tracks like ‘Blue i’. The serene flute tangles with the percussion, tugging at one another like the push and pull of two bodies. This minimalist ambience is accentuated even more elsewhere on Autobiography – ‘First Interlude (Absence of Measure)’ features only a distant airy synth and the hollow ringing and tick-tocking of miscellaneous percussion, while the dulled piano motif and chirping birds on ‘Anamesis, Pt. 2’ evoke a sparse, natural landscape. This temporary departure from frantic drum-programming is refreshing, and gives Autobiography the sense of cinematic adventure that is needed for a ballet score.
This is not to say that Jlin’s capacity for feverish intensity is absent on Autobiography (e.g. ‘Mutation’ and ‘Permutation’), but it is not always entirely successful. Considering the interesting friction that could have been generated by bringing a genre born in Chicago communities together with an elitist and high-brow art-form like ballet, Jlin perhaps could have done more with this context. ‘Annotation’ features a somewhat uninspiring siren melody that ultimately falls flat in its attempts to evoke hysteria and agitation. ‘The Abyss of Doubt’ is more successful at this, although it still leaves something to be desired. It features the same quick, blade-like whirring sound cutting through frantic drums that is present on Jlin’s earlier tracks like ‘Guantanamo’ on her first album, Dark Energy. It is also worth noting that Planet Mu, the label Jlin is on, stressed that Autobiography should not be considered as an album, but instead as a collaborative project that sits outside the timeline of her other albums. On the one hand, one might have hoped that Jlin would have used the experimental ballet context as an opportunity to develop her aggressive sound in a way that evokes the raw human energy and emotion conveyed through McGregor’s choreography. That said, if Autobiography is not strictly an album but a collaboration, then should be treated as such; the project is evidence of a fruitful relationship between two very interesting artists, but we can be sure there are more exciting things to come from Jlin’s own practice.
The elements of Jlin’s latest project that lack the passionate intensity of her previous work should not detract from the overall impressiveness of Autobiography. If McGregor’s ballet is an artistic expression of the human biological condition, then Autobiography is an exploration of how computer-driven music can paradoxically express animalistic frenzy and nakedness. Both the ballet and the score use advanced technology (be it scientific or musical) to return to a sense of primal human nature.
Favourite Tracks: Unorthodox Elements, Blue I, Carbon 12
Words by Tom Graham