Like fashion, musical trends fade in and out of the industry. Some enjoy longer stays than others — and even the short-lived trends can revive decades after falling out of style. In music, the art of sampling brings back the beloved hooks and motifs from days past, often to great success. When Los Angeles producer Esbe declares his “extensive use of jazz and soul samples” on his artist bio, there is hint of promise. But ultimately the derivation falls flat in his Jan. 9 release, “Bloomsday.”
The opening track invites listeners to drift into Esbe’s world of atmospheric beats. It transitions into the sunlit amber nostalgia of the second track, “Fulfill/The Dream.” Leisurely piano chords introduce the vocals of the late Labi Siffre: “This is my song.”
Hip-hop fans may recognize this snippet, and Esbe calls attention to the source of that familiarity. The Grammy Awards’ 2007 Best Rap Album, Kanye West’s “Graduation,” features the same Siffre sample in “I Wonder.” Esbe doesn’t shy from using the same parts of the song West chose, yet doesn’t develop it far beyond Siffre’s original. “Fulfill/The Dream” shies away from adding to the song to make it something unique. Instead, it plays stale underneath timid keyboard and a generic hip-hop beat.
Track five falls victim to a similar problem. Eumir Deodato’s 1970s track “San Juan Sunset” starts the track, and the sleazy elevator mood of the Rhodes piano continues throughout. Best Rap Album-nominated “The Cool” by Lupe Fiasco featured a single with the same sampling approach.
Not even halfway through, Esbe has established a pattern. Songs on “Bloomsday” don’t sound like samples of the originals, but instead sound like poor imitations of the hip-hop powerhouses of the last decade. The album sounds derivative, first-removed from the quoted original songs.
“In the pop and rap world, we’re going a little bit sample-crazy,” said Mark Ronson, 2008 Grammy Producer of the Year in a TED Talk about sampling. “We’re getting away from the obscure samples we’re doing … You can’t just hijack nostalgia wholesale. It leaves the listener feeling sickly. You have to take an element of those things and bring something fresh and new to it.”
It is therefore an artist’s challenge to take the original song and make it into something new. Elements of Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s 1984 hip-hop classic “La Di Da Di” have appeared in more than 500 recorded songs, from the Notorious B.I.G’s “Hypnotize” to Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” The song has also had its influence in Korean pop music as well, including the work of Psy, of “Gangnam Style” fame. These artists have pushed the original “La Di Da Di” to its limits to form a new mimetic motif in hip-hop that acts as a springboard for new ideas through today.
Successfully following Ronson’s advice, track 18, “Darling,” takes a risk. Heavily distorted vocals psychedelically chant “la di da di” behind a conga and sitar. Bobby Caldwell’s 1980 song “Open Your Eyes” lends classic vocals for the unusually appealing song. Though the late hip-hop legend J-Dilla produced Common’s Grammy-nominated single “The Light” with the same Caldwell sample, Esbe doesn’t rely on this source material to create a catchy, well-produced track.
Unfortunately no other track on “Bloomsday” achieves this. Some tracks on the album do offer fun, danceable beats, such as “Hello World” and “Wanderlust.” Yet the distracting bareness of Esbe’s elementary songwriting outweigh the parts where his creativity shines. Each track is cleanly assembled, but the handling of the parts leaves much to be desired.
At 20 tracks, “Bloomsday” is a long listen with little payoff. It is available at bandcamp.com for a user-defined price. But while the album won’t break the bank, its attempted sound is better developed in the award-winning hip-hop greats that sampled the same tracks before it.