Future Brown’s debut album changes the boundary of sound

The self-titled first album by the four electronic-music producers has received mixed reactions from critics, but it deserves credit for its collaboration with as many as 17 vocalists, who were carefully chosen to sing over Future Brown's beats.

The bi-coastal and bi-continental foursome from Future Brown, from left: Fatima Al Qafiri, J-Crush, Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda.

Courtesy Benjamin Alexander Huseby
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What’s replaced the old-­fashioned idea of “good taste” in the 21st century, critics have argued in recent years, is ­cultural omnivorousness. You’re a ­member of the elite if you can talk knowledgeably about high and low culture in the same ­sentence, mixing in references to as many obscurely niche scenes as possible.

By these standards, Future Brown – a quartet of producers who make a mixture of rap, R&B and club music from around the world – score full marks. Individually, they have already spent years immersed in other projects, hopping with ease between the worlds of fine art, fashion and the club, and they have an encyclopaedic knowledge of underground sounds.

For a decade, Fatima Al Qadiri has been making experimental electronic music, mixing beats for avant-garde runway shows and creating art for major ­museum exhibitions. Jamie Imanian-Friedman, aka J-Cush, runs Lit City Trax, a “platform for the music vanguard”, specialising in what he calls “niche and geographically specific styles of club music”. Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda produce esoteric hip-hop under the name Nguzunguzu, and DJ’ed on MIA’s 2011 tour.

In an interview with V Magazine, the quartet list the genres that inspire them as "grime, rap, R&B, dancehall, kuduro, tarraxinha, kwaito, reggaeton, garage, Jersey, Philly and Baltimore club, ballroom, juke, footwork, jungle, ghetto house [and] Bacardi house, among others". They are world citizens, split between Los Angeles and New York, with family roots in Kuwait, India, Iran, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and they DJ in places such as Reykjavik and Seoul.

Throw 17 different vocalists from five cities into the mix, with four producers working with more musical styles than you can count, and you might imagine a cacophony, but what ties Future Brown’s self-titled album together is the breathing space around the stark beats and a tendency to offset even the smoothest songs with an unexpected, unsettling element.

Sometimes this seems perverse. One of the strongest tracks, a slow jam called Dangerzone, features the soul-obsessed Washington native Kelela, who counts Björk, Kendrick Lamar and Solange Knowles among the fans of her Mariah- and ­D'Angelo-inspired sound. It's both melodically memorable and deliciously slinky – although what sounds like a seduction is, on closer inspection, a cry for help. "Can't somebody please save me," Kelela purrs, "I'm in the danger zone." The vocal performance is rich, and the percussive patter of whirrs and clicks complements it well, but not much is added by the Chinese flute sound that flutters in and out of the mix.

Future Brown’s real strength is not as producers but as curators: they are curious, intelligent, ­passionate music nerds with ­encyclopedic record collections and the persuasive power to get both scene veterans and rising stars on board. Kelela is one of a small constellation of starlets who have been chosen to write and perform their own virtuoso vocal parts, as is the Spanish-rapping “tropical punk” Maluca and the teenaged Chicago rapper Tink, who features on the album’s rowdy opening and closing tracks.

Tink is a swaggering, hard-­partying, husky-voiced tour de force, and both Wanna Party and Room 302 make a persuasive case for switching off your better judgement and cutting loose. ­Expect to see more from her in the future; she's currently working with Timbaland and André 3000 on her own debut album.

Several other tracks make use of veterans who are already ­recognised as pioneers of their genre. Asbestos is another of the album's highlights, with ­members of two prominent grime collectives, Ruff Sqwad and Roll Deep, taking turns on the mic. An off-kilter beat ­punctuates lyrics that are by turns introspective ("I'm far from a perfect human being/Faith in the Lord even though I don't see him") and defiant ("Could never see a man like me on X Factor/My jeans too low and my face too black"). Both the music and the words conjure anxious energy in a way that's both raw and artful.

Future Brown have cautioned against linking the group’s name, their diverse geographic roots, their various skin tones and the multilingual, international roster of vocalists they have worked with – it’s not all part of some grand narrative about a future multicultural utopia, they insist. Like any interesting artists, they prefer their imagery to remain ambiguous, and they say that “Future Brown” is a reference to a colour not yet seen in nature, conjured up by a hallucinating friend.

Despite this, questions about race and about class have been part of the critical conversation about the group, and there are some dyed-in-the-wool music fans who feel that Future Brown borrow street cred from scenes ignored by the white middle class, repackaging the sounds in a way that will appeal to exactly that demographic.

After all, they are brilliant at ­lavishing attention on the details of their public image. The music video for the single Vernáculo mimics a cosmetics advert, and could pass as a surreal, satirical piece of video art. Their promo photos double as fashion shoots for their friends' super-stylish fashion brands, such as Hood by Air and Telfar. They have debuted a track at a Miami Beach party at Art Basel and put on a live performance at MoMA's Queens-based offshoot gallery, PS1, in which basketball players put on a choreographed show, bouncing balls in time to Future Brown's beats. Every peripheral part of their art is innovative and attention-grabbing.

No wonder the style press love them, and no wonder they make diehard fans of the genres ­sampled by the group feel uneasy. When Fact Magazine ­collated responses to Talkin Bandz – another track on the album released as an advance single, featuring the "Queen of Chicago" Shawnna – there were some sharp responses from bass-music experts.

“It’s sad that the most ­mainstream press 3D Na’Tee and Timberlee are ever ­likely to receive will be courtesy of this ­album,” Alex Macpherson wrote. Fellow contributor Son Raw’s take was: “We already know these guys are hip so ­aggregating hood music from a bunch of cities won’t dispel the notion that they’re all style and no ­substance.”

The criticism of the media is fair enough, and Future Brown clearly have style in spades, but the charge that doesn’t stick is that Future Brown are cultural appropriators, borrowing edge from undersung talent while risking nothing.

"The thing with appropriation," Al Qadiri said in an interview with Fader, "is if you're working with someone who is mimicking a sound or creating a false reality, then it's a problem. But if you're working with a vocalist from the place or from the genre, it falls less into the trap of appropriation. Also, it's appropriation if it's meant to be watered down and diluted."

All artists steal, from Picasso to Miley Cyrus, and it would be nonsensical to see Future Brown as somehow inauthentic because they haven’t confined themselves to a single musical community, or because they have art-school degrees on their résumés. They clearly care deeply about the artists they work with, and they’re not dumbing down the subgenre conventions they play with in order to appeal to the masses. They’re also just following their artistic impulses: it’s not their fault if their fashion-set fans have never heard a dancehall mixtape, and are more interested in the group’s hipster credentials than in tracing their influences.

For those not as well-versed in footwork or reggaeton as Son Raw or Macpherson, what they’ll hear in Future Brown’s ­debut is an uneven, eclectic ­album that’s bursting with ­talent: a starting place to go and discover more. It may be more of a snapshot of a moment than an enduring artwork, but what is certain to persist into the ­future is the irrepressible ­creative drive of the four minds behind it.

Al Qadiri, Imanian-Friedman, Maroof and Pineda will still be up to something interesting in five or 10 years’ time, whether it’s making boundary-challenging music like this, collaborating with fashion designers, ­making art or doing something else that’s completely unexpected at the frontiers of pop culture.

This album is available on Amazon.

Jessica Holland writes for Shawati’, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Vice and MTV. She is currently based in New York.