“As clean as one can start up from nothing / Oh bring me back to nothing”
They were green and vibrant, forest-rich and felt-like but light-friendly, lightly opalescent. Three bright, cartoon-bee-yellow stripes on each side, purchased on a whim of misguided self-expression at the world’s first indoor mall. Green wasn’t a flattering color for a grub-pale gangle of limbs. Slouchy jeans, hunched back, baby paunch, braces, and severely styled hair. The only time they were worn (they weren’t comfortable) was a day of flushed cheeks and down-turned eyes. Crushing self-consciousness. One person complimented the boring eccentricity they put up. Thrown away two years later in a cleaning purge, as a new personality settled in. Cool doesn’t become you.
I went to high school in the days before YouTube and Facebook and Tumblr and the now-numerous other things which allow a certain triangulation of taste and a rough estimation of acceptable deviation from the norm. If I had been surrounded by that crushing deluge at that age, I would’ve either hidden from it or embarrassed myself–or done what I ended up doing: posting everything in secret, hoping to be discovered by a stranger who would whisk me away. I probably wouldn’t have been very brave. I knew people who were, and I was in awe of them. To be young and brave and give no fucks is a gift that can’t be learned. To back that shit up? To make a real thing? Forget it.
“I can be your file / Every last megabyte”
Eleven months ago, according to the Internet’s rough estimate, thestand4rd uploaded its first song to SoundCloud, the audio hosting site that serves as the gravitational center of “independent” music of every stripe and cross-section. That first upload, “doors,” was the work of four kids–that’s no shot: these are and were proper kids, SAT studies underway (or being ignored) or college skipped–from St. Paul, Minnesota, or close enough, whose independent output was at a level of consistent professionalism that should have, by rights, been beyond them. They obviously gave no fucks, except to the work. On that song, disorienting pans begin oozing three-fourths through, dug-in windswept chimes (largely–maybe, but we’ll get to that shortly–the work of producer Psymun and vocal exclamation points, the fucked-up lyrics from Corbin (“try to make it to me bitch / I’ma shut you up / I’m a dick now”), still Spooky Black then, before declaring his original pseudonym “a dumb name.” The distinctive staccato cadence and tight introspection of Allan Kingdom–those caricature R’s leaned into, end-of-stanza breaks almost comically punctuated. The not-put-on gangster lean of Bobby Raps.
“We don’t need a key / If we’re kicking in the king’s head”
Talking to The Fader last October, Psymun lamented to Minnesota writer Eamon Whalen of peoples’ (mostly journalists’, I’m guessing) need to know who was responsible for the sounds within a certain track, its bridge or breaks or snaps or swoons. Neo-technologic, syncretic R&B would be one way of describing it. Krautlove? “It doesn’t say enough” of the creative process that produced the result, he said, to try and explain the specifics behind it. So, for once in our damn lives, let’s just take his word for it. Let’s let the lattice live and the whole be inextricable.
“I couldn’t speak my own language / Only how they wanted me to talk”
That whole. Across its eleven tracks, thestand4rd’s self-titled debut–uploaded for free in October 2014–prisms, in amber and lavender and electroshock, a sound that maybe owes something to everyone: LA’s beat underground and Stones Throw and R. Kelly and Sade and Manuel Gottsching. It’s so striking and confident as to be quizzical on first listen and overwhelming by the third. The first record (the only) springs awake from the heart-red, crushed-velvet bed the four were clearly camped out in on “Vital Signs,” a four-four thumper and beautifully ratchet halfway mark. The group, without doubt, is strongest when dealing with a topic they might, at their age, only know through forty-five degree angles: love. Regardless of their experiences with love and its labyrinth, they fucking nail it. (Cointerpoint: This is the bullshit perspective of a person slightly aged and overly confident in their emotional experiences. This writer fell deeply, crazily-overwhelmingly in love at the age of nineteen. Thirty and one now and still recovering.)
thestand4rd came about because they were different, and young, and the most talented people interested in a particular type of expression within a stifling, bright-white snowscape at a very important time. The four weren’t longtime friends, they were circling each other’s drains, inevitably coming together. In a Minnesota Daily interview one year ago, before he was in the same room with Kanye West, Allan Kingdom said, when asked who he was excited about: “I’ve been listening to Spooky Black [from] St. Paul. Have you heard of him? He’s really dope.” Bobby Raps had probably heard of him. Psymun probably had. Spooky was probably doing his homework (after their show in New York last November, Spooky flew home to tend to his schoolwork–the rest stayed.)
It’s codified in concrete by now that the Internet is where new artists get immediately to work, without bothering to check with the lock-lockers and keymakers. (Often the problem is sharing too early things not ready for prime time. It’s not 1980; there isn’t a stepladder to climb where friends and family and the experienced have a chance to say “this is pretty bad.” Possessing the self-honesty to keep your boogers in your nose where they belong has become as much a virtue as actually making lovely things.) The web is where the exceptional force the hands of the famed and established to recognize they’ve been pushing things forward, without their blessing or awareness. As Kingdom told Complex in March, there’s little need for them to have a corporate co-sign: “If it’s not necessary, then no.” Or as Bobby Raps told Issue, “You don’t need 50k for videos and marketing. It’s all bullshit. If you want to do it, you can, just don’t let anything stop you.” Regardless, they got one, recording that debut record with Doc McKinney, the same Svengali behind net-grassroots Internet once-mystery child The Weeknd. thestand4rd has risen well beyond any comparisons; a year after his first song appeared on SoundCloud, Allan Kingdom was invited by Kanye West to a recording session, ending up the anchor of the chorus on West’s “All Day,” alongside Theophilus London and Paul (fucking) McCartney. What the fuck? (That’s probably what Kingdom was thinking, onstage at the Brit Awards in London with West for the song’s debut.) It’s not a dig to guess he might have expected this unnatural rise. (It’s also worth noting that West, famously impressionable, put out the uber-minimal, wabi-sabi “Only One” after being put on to Kingdom and thestand4rd.)
thestand4rd used the widened grey area between humor and seriousness on the web, between “true” art and the Jerky Boys, as a stepping stone to move past everything about all of that self-referentiality. They’re doing it, but they don’t care if you get the joke, or even fully acknowledge that there is one. Their youth is an asset–its practical, unheeled hubris. And their work, while winking, is no fucking meme.
“I’m just trying to play to win”