In praise of: Koala, L’Orange (Mello Music Group, 2016) w/ref to 2015 Kool Keith project  

Have to confess that this ep, released by L’Orange had already half won me over on the basis of the title alone, easily pleased one might say. (Even if koalas are the least hip-hop animal you could imagine - dozing all day on their eucalypt high and then emitting a very deep, low-level grunt when they wake, unless it is music of this kind that maps out your hip-hop headspace).

L'Orange's Koala is a tender and thoughtful album, built on an original premise. Providing the foundations – all the key squeaky, high-pitched vocal sounds/samples – is the music of Joanna Newsom, and her 2010 record Have one on me, in particular.

Below the YouTube video are the following comments from the artist:

'Koala is a personal tribute to love and love lost- a fragile meditation on depression and passion. Solidarity in solitude, we are not alone.'

Even if we break,
we are rebuilt with gold
to show that we are not defined
by our construction.
We can wear
our cracks
on our arms and faces
proudly.

(Oh my). Koala is dedicated to Keely Latterner. I contacted L'Orange for a comment regarding this and he replied: 'Joe Latterner (Kon Sci)'s wife passed away late last year. He was my mentor and friend when I was growing up. He was a big influence on me and I can say I would not be where I am musically without him.'

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Now, I’m not sure if this statement I’m going to make is 100 % correct, but I can’t think of another hip-hop album that has taken this approach of offering up work as a homage to another contemporary artist. Certainly, hip-hop is all about making references (to musical forebears; to well-known lyrics; to cultural stances; to shared norms). 

Often these acts of ‘homage’ are a musical version of an Oedipal struggle, where the sons are out to kill (or replace/undermine) the fathers, but L’Orange’s work is light years away from the classic macho brag-rap, staking out territory about who’s number one. 

And has no connection to any form of referencing that we are so familiar with, drawing on the achievements of past masters: the idea of making connections with a living artist, to offer up his work as if it were part of a conversation is intriguing. In this music, L'Orange is relating/responding to the work of another artist, subtly drawing attention to its qualities, while creating something new in its place: the essence of hip-hop. (And, of course, it matters that this artist is a woman, as well, you know … never mind).

For me, though, this record is original in a musical sense first and foremost. I particularly appreciate the way this music offers up so many fresh drum sounds – even if it’s been labelled, ‘genre: Boom Bap’ on one site - and the way the elements slip/slide and fade into each other. There is something new in this, something enlivening and something necessary. As I wrote when listening to it for the first time, it’s a ‘glorious piece of Romanticism spliced’.

This music is moving on from hip-hop production as form and structure - that is so familiar it could be seen as grid-like - to music that expresses a sensibility that is deeply lyrical. In this regard, it reminds me of Onra’s rehash/recreation of the Chinese voice (see my recent writing on Chinoiseries part 3).

Take the opener, ‘Easily’ on Koala, the musical parts work together beautifully but also in a kind of conflict, with the beat coming in at times with the piano to disappear at other times, enacting a musical form that remains unclear, almost unfamiliar. But there’s also a deep sensuality here: an erotics of music that stems from – and celebrates – tension, while allowing the music simply to just be.  

The beginning reminds me of The Beatles' 'I am the walrus' (here is a weirdo-take that appeals to me, labelled '8-bit version'). If you listen closely to 'Easily' you can hear that the music follows a traditional form (similar to jazz); just before 30 seconds there is a shift, at 2 minutes with the return of the piano it deepens, appears to be insistent. As a piece of music, there appears to be a fine sense of order, or structure, but at the same time it carries with it a false sense of certainty, or security: the centre does not hold (and yet there is pleasure to be found here in all this movement, swimming around itself).  

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Check out this great interview with L'Orange from ‘TinyMixtapes’ with L’Orange marking the release of his 2015 record Time? Astonishing! with Kool Keith (also released on Mello Music Group) where the North Carolina-born, Nashville-based producer speaks about the way he feels drawn to early be-bop, or ‘hot jazz’ and how his work with the legend-MC was underpinned by a ‘guardian angel-type time travel idea.’

I pitched the idea to Keith about doing a project about time traveling, because a lot of my stuff is very somber, it’s very dark, it may have some quirkiness to it and some comedy, I hope, but it’s a very dark tone, and so for this one I did want to escape that a little bit and escape myself a little bit. And doing a project with Kool Keith, there’s no way I’m going to get on the phone with him and say, “I want to do this project about a writer who drives himself mad alone in his room and dies.” You know? I’m not going to do that, so I came up with this concept that sort of came [from] this recurring dream I had where I was being followed by a time traveler who was always two minutes in front of me. I sort of became obsessed with this guardian angel-type time travel idea.

Sometimes in music, I think, the easier the concept at its core, or the easier the premise, the more you can expand on it and [have] people still be able to digest it. So I pitched this idea to Kool Keith about doing this time travel record, but what was really important to me was that we could explore the ideas about a man without time, while still allowing Keith to be abstract and indulge in his non-sequitur style and do what he invented, really. I wanted to put Keith in a position to be himself, and do the same for me…

He was feeling it, and he introduced a couple concepts about space travel tied in with that. I liked that, because the way I envisioned it was him moving purely to the future, like he ate breakfast and was like, “Alright, what am I going to do today? I’ll go to the future.” So yeah, he really embraced it.