Album Review: As Much as I Used To by Vagrant Real Estate

by Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

rating 7

Foresighted listeners who read the song titles of this seventeen-track objet d’soul before actually listening to it will be able to glean its basic narrative. A thoroughgoing romantic tale to be sure, As Much as I Used To tracks all the important milestones of its hypothetical relationship: the serendipitous meeting (First Sight), inchoate affection and consummation (Lust, Rendezvous), mounting trepidation (Hesitate), allayment (Assurance), and the devastating quietus (No You Don’t, Plato’s Cave), which proves to be a felix culpa (Still Friends). Like the myriad soul records he deconstructs and reassembles, Vagrant Real Estate seeks to universalize romantic despair and felicity by way of deceptively simple music and lyrics coupled with sensationalized scenes of either unbridled affection or debilitating rejection. But this Aberdonian DJ imbues enough aural nuance into its story that his flash fictive romance avoids cliché while still maintaining the appeal of familiarity.

The bulk of Used To’s songs are signified by oblique leitmotifs. Lust is certainly informed by its repetitive “I want you so…” and “Come on, baby” interpolations, but only when the strings climax and the soundbite “I just make believe” emerges, backed by a chorine countermelody, does the track truly embody the carnal attraction its title suggests. Hesitate employs a striking, dissonant piano chord that, when treated with a stentorian bass pop and a fidgeting guitar flourish, only strays farther from attaining resolution, in effect cultivating the feeling of reticence to which the song’s name refers. But despite the album’s more erudite depictions of these abstract concepts, The Vagrant is still able to play his audience’s pleasure principle and demand for immediate gratification. Casual listeners will fawn over the demonstrable sexiness of Muscle Cars, the instant melancholy of Blinded, and the speeded-up desperation of its successor Talk.

The soul samples Real Estate chooses to employ are arcane enough—no Let’s Stay Together or Three Times a Lady to be found among the bricolage of plunderphonics—but as with most artists operating within this strain of instrumental hip-hop, this doesn’t matter to anyone but the producer. For the half-engaged listener or fledgeling soul enthusiast, the obscurity of an artist’s source material is incidental to the music itself.

Like DJ Shadow, Vagrant Real Estate scours his collection of esoterica to find an appropriate snatch of melody, an engrossing loop or a chipmunk-worthy vocal line. Impressive, sure, but too principled for a genre predicated on extravagance and surfeit. Recall that The Dust Brothers sampled Superfly for Paul’s Boutique, after all. Still, VRE isn’t above throwing us an easily recognizable soundbite, either. Just listen to the Zoolander clip at the :44 mark of First Sight.

Like his hero J Dilla, The Vagrant champions brevity and the hypnotic loop above all else. With its longest cut clocking in at just under three minutes and most tracks running about half as long, As Much as I Used To utilizes a laser focus to pare its songs down to their aesthetic and thematic cores. But also like Dilla, VRE misprizes the tension and release model lauded by EDM punching bag Skrillex and orgasm addicts The Chemical Brothers. As a result, Used To comes off as more ascetic than dynamic, showcasing an aptitude for austere song structures without the payoff of forte-pianissimo oscillations. Even Madlib knew when to layer his instrumentals.

Cluttering Vagrant Real Estate’s Soundcloud page is an olla podrida of referential hashtags that identify, according to him, the most astute artistic comparisons. These tags run the gamut of instrumental hip-hop icons and evoke varying levels of credulity. Here we have #yeezy (absolutely), #drake (defensible), #donuts (if you must), and #wu tang (come on!), among others. The Vagrant no doubt holds a great amount of deference for each of these vanguards, and the aesthetic he’s created for himself certainly pays homage to them, but he strives to distil too many influences into a singular work of art. Make no mistake, Vagrant Real Estate is a talented producer, and As Much As I Used To serves as a promising start for a beatmaker looking to hone his craft in the LP format, but he’s bitten off more than he can chew for this first record. Remember what Kendrick said: “You ain’t gotta lie to kick it… You ain’t gotta try so hard.”