Three and a half years ago, Skrillex released Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (mau5trap/Big Beat), the EP that would transform him from a onetime post-hardcore singer who dabbled in producing electronic music to the savior of dance music in this country. He did it with a particularly mean stripe of dubstep — dirty, aggressive and sometimes grating — that ignored subtlety and demanded dancing with pneumatic intensity, sometimes in complete ignorance of the beat.
Thanks to the Internet, especially Web sites like Beatport, Skrillex’s sound spread quickly, and so did his influence. His rapid rise gave American dance music something it hadn’t had in quite some time: a superhero figure. In short order, he won Grammys and had a relationship with a high-profile British pop star, and his half-shaved haircut became meme-worthy — all in all, a modern star trip.
What Skrillex never bothered to do on this journey is release an album. Now there’s Recess, which arrives feeling more like a checked-off item on a bucket list. Even the nature of its release is low-impact, though it’s masquerading as a stunt. Surprise-released through an app, Recess streamed for a week on iTunes before its physical and digital debut this week. This is a loose echo of Beyonce’s recent unannounced album release, but it’s actually more consistent with the steady drip of music Skrillex has offered since his 2010 breakthrough: a string of EPs, work on the Spring Breakers soundtrack, some production collaborations and side projects. This album isn’t a standalone event signifying a radical shift; it’s business as usual.
Still, Skrillex has chosen an advantageous moment to release his debut long-player: The past 12 months have reconceptualized what a dance music full-length album can be, whether it was Random Access Memories (Columbia), the Daft Punk comeback that rebuilt that vanguard French house music duo as preservationists of organic 1970s soul, or Avicii’s True (PRMD/Island), in which that Swedish mega-house wunderkind remade himself as an unlikely pop production savant. That’s to say nothing of the recent grand-scale, collaboration-heavy pop albums by the likes of Calvin Harris and David Guetta, dance producers who ruthlessly pursue crossover success by recruiting the highest-profile vocal collaborators available.
But Skrillex has not chosen any of these paths. He has instead remained obstinate. Or maybe focused. Or maybe scared of what change on that scale would mean for his identity.
Recess moves beyond the trademark Skrillex sound in small and sometimes meaningful ways, but it falls far short of upheaval. There is the usual annihilation: percussive synthesizers deployed with force on songs like All Is Fair in Love and Brostep and Try It Out. These are kin to the sorts of industrial-scale tracks Skrillex built and maintained his reputation on.
But he adds a twist on this album. On a pair of songs, All Is Fair in Love and Brostep and Ragga Bomb, he collaborates with Ragga Twins, the British vocalist duo integral in the 1990s intersection of rave, jungle and reggae. This is Skrillex nodding to his early dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass roots or, more specifically, the roots of his roots. At times, Skrillex has felt ahistorical, but this move is a clear attempt to show how the family tree has been formed.