Trying to deconstruct Wildhood to fit one specific genre box is like eating three of those entire gingerbread houses you build of candy, icing, and such at Christmastime: The temptation is there, and you probably could if you were really determined. But doing such would be a terrible idea and ultimately end up ruining your enjoyment of the entire thing.
Captained by Jordan Stephens, one half of British hip-hop-pop duo Rizzle Kicks, Wildhood is somewhat shrouded in mystery — which only adds to the appeal. According to Gigwise, Wildhood is Stephens’ “dark side” of an experimental outlet, with Stephens’ father Herman Stephens on bass and producer Tommy D on drums and various other sonic “flourishes.” But Wildhood is much more than a side project — their releases are far from cookie-cutter, varying from dark pop to relaxed R&B, all tinged with heavily-personal details. Vert, Wildhood’s eight-track EP released in March, basically lives up to Stephens’ statement that Wildhood makes pretty much “whatever [they] want” (as told to The Telegraph).
Vert is a grab bag of musical goodies. Chucking the confines of genre out the window, Stephens’ creativity takes full reign over eight tracks of diverse sounds. However, Vert somehow manages to remain a cohesive whole — perhaps for the very reason that it takes listeners for one heck of a wild ride.
Watch: “Baggy” – Wildhood
Heavy bass gives “Baggy,” the EP’s first track, a decidedly-rock tilt. However, Stephens’ mile-per-minute vocals and punchy drums twists it into something simultaneously pop and EDM. The genre-blending works enough to give the song (and accompanying music video) a sense of hectic necessity—almost as if we, as listeners, are scraping the bottom of our bags along with Stephens—but he’s the one providing the frenetic high.
A high inevitably comes with a fall, and “Double Dark” drops us somewhere deep. Trippy, low synth makes up its prolonged intro. As the narrative progresses, the song moves into the delightfully-creepy camp—with lines like “So misleading, twisted grins/ No retreating, they’ve pulled you in” and “I was an angel till you beckoned,” Stephens effectively draws us into his world of fun. Accompanied by a Paranormal Activity-style music video, we’re almost engulfed enough not to expect the drop–drums and feedback come in heavy as Stephens belts “On a dark, dark night, on a dark, dark street/There’s a hundred thousand reasons why I’d like to pick a fight with you.” As much dark pop or dark rock, “Double Dark” kidnaps us as listeners and gives us a good shake-up. It’s full of twists and turns, and shows us what Wildhood is capable of doing with sound and with freaking us out.
A lifetime of good can change in a second
I was an angel till you beckoned
This isn’t heaven
You wanna know where the trouble starts
When you’re double dark, when you’re double dark
Watch: “Double Dark” – Wildhood
“Psycho Jam” drags us up from the depths for something completely different. Elements of hip hop, pop, and indie rock combine in the defining line “You don’t need no rules when you’re a psycho”—or when you’re given free reign to do whatever you want in the studio. The result is a anthem that sees Wildhood rip free from genre. If this is “free like a psycho,” why would you want to be anything but?
If you wanna be friends with me, I’m afraid I can’t oblige
Cuz I’ve got thoughts I can’t explain, and you’d hate me if I tried.
You need no rules when you’re a psycho,
You don’t speak with fools when you’re a psycho
The bass-heavy, jazzy “Hate Me” does exactly what Kanye West’s entire public persona has attempted to — speaks as that person you can’t help but love and hate. Stephens’ voice, traversing into a deep purr, coupled with sweet saxophone and strong R&B influences, dares us to hate him and by extension admit that we love him. Playing nice all the time gets a bit boring, and Stephens wants to see this person’s other side — daring them to punch him and make him cry — in order to gain love and respect, a sort of proving what they’re capable of (“I need you to hate me so I can love you/ I need you to break me so I can trust you”). It’s surprisingly witty, sexy, and vexing at the same time — and only possibly by tossing sticking to one genre completely out the window.
Don’t be cool, don’t be great,
Break those rules, make me say,
‘I love you.’ Hate me.
“Star Fucker” is a laid-back tale — the story of a guy who’s made it big enough to sleep with the stars. Marveling the fact that the famous “she” has actually ended up needing him, Stephens’ emotionally unavailable, much-less-cool character inevitably ends up becoming the “star.” When coupled with its chill instrumentals, its bluntness towards fame and sex gives the song extra charm and humor factor — all while leaving us wondering just how personal it really is.
“Whole” relies more heavily on guitar, coupled Stephens’ raw vocals. It’s yet another one of Vert’s 180-degree twists–in an alternate universe, it could be the other side of “Star Fucker”’s story. “Whole”’s narrative is deeply sentimental, detailing Stephens’ own running in circles in a relationship that’s falling apart. The soft strings allow Stephens’ vocals to be the song’s center–so much so that you can almost feel the pain as Stephens sings:
Oh baby, I’ve been living in a hole lately
I’ve been looking for the dark, hiding from the promise of a ray of light
I know you wanna get me home safely, but I’m battling my own crazy,
And it feels like I’m the only one who puts up a decent fight
“Where Have You Been?” continues the soft, acoustic vibes with its piano intro. As the song progresses, it takes on a more R&B beat. Slow it down and remove the drums and it could be Tony Bennett. But between the piano, violin, and Stephens’ repeated croon of “There’s nothing I can do to keep from loving you,” “Where Have You Been?” remains a steadfast love song to the person that’s been long-since out of sight but never too far out of mind.
Watch: “Where Have You Been?” – Wildhood
“Only Wonder” combines orchestral saxophone, hip hop, and dream pop for a final burst of genre-bending sound. More hip-hop than any other track, it features Stephens rapping against a soft backdrop of saxophone, weaving together what becomes a deeply personal narrative. Ending the album — with its ups, downs, and corkscrew twists — with a song like “Only Wonder” speaks to Stephens’ maturity as a musician, and to his talent to morph aspects of different genres into a cohesive whole.
Not to be displayed, just be accepted by your culture,
Never want to be the one digested by the vultures,
Just trying to be a guy who people wanna gain respect from,
Triggering a notion that my mind’s my greatest weapon.
After a magical mystery tour through a mashup of hip-hop, (dream) pop, and everything in between, a song as understated as this leaves us with a wide impression of what Stephens and Wildhood are capable of — as well as a strong taste for more.