Various artists Untitled Lonely Table / Vinyl Factory
When you think of Jean-Michel Basquiat, what immediately comes to mind? His stark and stunning paintings, rudimentary in practice but deep in soulful expression? Perhaps it’s the fact that he was the first artist to take street art into the high-flying gallery world, cementing his status as a generation-defining visionary when he was still in his early 20s. Or maybe you simply imagine the man himself, holding his thousand-yard stare from under a crown of dreadlocks, silent intensity bursting from his wiry frame.
What I’m getting at is, how do you translate Basquiat’s genius, which was so fleeting, so fragile and so influential, into a completely different medium? How could anyone ever speak in his place? Untitled, a new compilation of rising British rappers, singers, producers and musicians attempts this very feat, imbuing seven tracks with the kind of murky pathos and vibrant colour for which Basquiat himself became legendary. The result is an arresting, if not always clear-cut, collection of songs that are more successful at capturing the essence of Basquiat when forgoing literal interpretations for more theoretical, more conceptual takes.
A collaboration between UK underground music platform Lonely Table, DJ and producer Anja Ngozi, and The Vinyl Factory, these aren’t simply a bunch of art-scene-obsessed musos attempting to grasp at Basquiat’s coattails. From the very first track, it’s clear that everyone involved has done their research. Opener Legend is a three-way mind-meld between producer Wu-Lu, rapper Lex Armor, and vocalist Ego Ella May, wherein Armor and May’s slack and breezy vocals crash up against spiky breakbeats and wavering bass. “It don’t matter what they call me/ You focus on my blackness/ How my hair stands up to the blue,” sings May, painting a stark picture of Basquiat’s ethos against the urban backgrounds he inhabited.
The album takes a tonal left turn during Lord Tusk and Roxanne Tataei’s Know Ways. Easily a highlight of Untitled, it’s an abstract slice of post-punk that wouldn’t have sounded out of place at the iconic Mudd Club, the birthplace of the New York no wave scene that Basquiat had been such an integral part of. With a distorted bassline that oozes the same dark tones as bands like DNA and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, it’s a calculated nod to the downtown art scene of the 80s, and Tataei’s banshee wails land somewhere between Lydia Lunch and Róisín Murphy. Know Ways sounds as if Tusk and Tatei are trying to reel in a runaway piece of heavy machinery – noisy, dark and dangerous. It’s the album’s most interesting interpretation of Basquiat’s work; the track gives you a slightly sick feeling, as ominous as paint dripping down dark alley walls.
The album only stumbles when it takes its subject a little too literally. London spoken word/hip-hop duo =CoN+KwAke=’s Same Ol Samo, referring to the graffiti tag that Basquiat founded early in his career, just feels slightly laboured, lacking that extra layer of interpretation that makes most of Untitled more than just another tribute compilation. In contrast, Kojey Radical’s collaboration with saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, No Gangsta, pays subtle homage to Basquiat’s Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage, using Hutchings’ sax and clarinet to invoke a distant island breeze.
It’s this kind of eclecticism that makes Untitled a true reflection of the spirit of Basquiat, and why, even with its limited runtime, it warrants multiple listens. While explicitly drawing inspiration from a prodigal artist, Untitled doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to encompass their entire life’s work into seven songs – instead, it relies on the art, lives and experiences of some of the UK’s most promising underground voices to pick up where he left off.