Jamie xx Brings Out Young Thug & Gyptian at Surprise NYC Boiler Room Set: Live Review

Jamie xx
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The producer and DJ known as Jamie xx became a star with a light, surgical touch. He concocted rhythmic beds for the xx, a group that has enjoyed remarkable success with soft lovers' duets. Jamie's beats helped communicate a quickening of the pulse, a nervous glance, a furtive step away from a partner -- he acted as a puppet master, pulling strings without ever seeming to insert himself into the fray.

He played a suddenly announced Boiler Room set at the Good Room in Brooklyn last night. His solo debut, In Colour, arrived in May, squeaky clean -- sometimes to the point of sterility. Jamie's an expert at creating tracks that simmer but never boil over. In a song like "See Saw," that's not a problem: the instrumental perfectly embodies the angst of singer Romy Croft (a fellow member of the xx). She's wounded, though so wispy she won't let you feel her hurt. The beat does the talking for her -- it's a heady, swirling ball of indecision. But overall there's a flatness to In Colour, a reticence that limits its impact.

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When Jamie wants to scrape away at his shiny surface and play with texture, he samples. Then it's as if he's been captured by spirits, and the results can feel like the work of a totally different producer. In 2011, for example, he put out We're New Here, a remix project that manipulated vocals from an aged Gil Scott-Heron. At that point in Scott-Heron's career, his voice was tattered husk -- it's hard to imagine anything further from the wan, tender singing of Jamie's comrades in the xx.  

In Colour is buoyed by a pair of similarly coarse samples. "Gosh" takes a simple exclamation -- "oh my gosh!" -- and transforms it into a cudgel, a battle-cry that races the beat forward. And "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" makes a track from a little-known vocal group, the Persuasions, sound like the formidable Teddy Pendergrass. This is remarkable considering that this sort of unapologetically full voice is mostly out of favor in almost every genre of pop music. Jamie created one of the most vibrant R&B hooks of the year -- with a sample.

During his Boiler Room set, the producer's sandpapery side was on full display, adding a depth and contrast to his live show that sometimes fails to emerge on the glistening surface of his album. His selections included Jay Z's thumping classic "A Million And 1 Questions," Fred Wesley's "House Party" -- any time James Brown-affiliated horn players are involved, sparks are sure to fly -- and Jamie's own remix of Gil Scott Heron's "I'll Take Care Of U," which later formed the basis for a Drake hit.

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These helped throw the songs from In Colour into sharp relief. The producer effectively mashed sections of "Sleep Sound," a gurgling, effervescent number, into another track that was crude and bass-heavy. Even more impressive was the way he moved from a breakneck, quadruple-time barrage of sound into "Obvs." On recording, "Obvs" can be plodding, but in this context, it seemed like a safe harbor. Unexpectedly, the synth tones evoked the grand, striving beauty of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill."

Jamie expanded his range in other ways: the night also promised special surprise guests, who turned out to be the dancehall singer Gyptian and the rapper Young Thug. Gyptian sang "Hold Yuh," an irrepressible bubble that happens to be produced by Brooklyn native Ricky Blaze. The crowd's reaction was immediate, serving as a reminder that hits always have unruly power.

"I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)," Jamie's collaboration with Thug, is the closest thing the producer has to a hit. Thug favors a volatile, sporadic delivery at odds with Jamie's carefully considered approach. Live, the MC ran amok, spewing vocal shrapnel that poked holes in the easy-going beat. The microphone spouted feedback, and once again, anarchy disrupted order.