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Kaytranada and Aminé come full circle

The record runs like a compilation of their best musical instincts compressed, refined and fine-tuned to a punchy summer frequency.
Lucas Creighton
The record runs like a compilation of their best musical instincts compressed, refined and fine-tuned to a punchy summer frequency.

In July of 2014, the marketing student and would-be rapper Aminé sent out a wishful Twitter DM attempting to get his fledgling music career off the ground. The then-20-year-old soon-to-be dropout at Portland State University hoped a few beats from a buzzing DJ and producer in Montreal would help give him some much needed juice. Said producer, Kaytranada, already had a growing cult following on SoundCloud and an iconic Boiler Room set. His signature bounce, Aminé hoped, would provide the boost he was looking for. "I was broke as f*** working on music everyday in 2014 looking for a north star," he recalled on Twitter last week. The free beats that Kaytranada sent back eventually ended up on his mixtape, Calling Brio, a project that ingratiated the Portland rapper with the music blogosphere and, ultimately, helped earn him a spot alongside megawatt acts like Ariana Grande and The Weeknd at Republic Records. It was a moment that established Aminé's swaggering hip-hop-outsider persona and provided proof of concept for his ebullient brand of pop-rap.

If this origin story — a shot in the dark becoming a pivotal career turning point — is the prologue, then KAYTRAMINÉ, their new collaborative project, is a fitting afterword. The ace 11-track album, replete with a radio-worthy single and a some of the best crafted verses and beats of their respective careers, is emblematic of artists who, not only have migrated from the margins to the mainstream, but are operating with a level of comfort and confidence that they could have previously only dreamed of.

Since that fateful early exchange, the artists' respective sounds have evolved with their profiles. In 2014, the Haitian-Quebecois producer had made a name for himself as a kind of remix savant, molding R&B classics like Janet Jackson's "If" and TLC's "Creep" into swinging club tracks and thumping beat-scene anthems. His favored reverb-y hand claps, crisp hi-hats and extraterrestrial synths had become a bit of a calling card. Despite touring the globe, playing festivals and opening for acts like Madonna, the chronically shy 23-year-old continued to live in the basement of his mom's home in suburban Montreal, sharing a bedroom with his younger brother. All the while, his lore only grew, attracting the admiration and attention of more famous peers. His full-length debut, 99.9%, released on XL, was awarded Canada's prestigious Polaris Music Prize. These days, the introvert-cum-superstar commands top-billing at Coachella (performing before a giant replica of his own head), and owns two Grammys.

Aminé, for his part, has also undergone a bit of a transformation. After Calling Brio, the Portland rapper was very suddenly catapulted into the mainstream as a precocious, gap-toothed provocateur with 2016's "Caroline." The single — a massive streaming hit that has been registered 6x platinum — bears all the hallmarks of what would become Aminé staples: a goofy affability, staccato bursts of irreverent wordplay and a sticky pop hook. His major label debut, Good For You, was suffused with the same kind of technicolor juvenility that propelled his breakout single, but as the years have progressed, the now-29-year-old has diversified his sound and settled into a more relaxed pose. For Aminé, this has culminated in projects like 2020's Limbo — a collection of the buoyant, melodic raps he made his name on, some trunk-rattling trap and a marked progression in vocal technique—and 2021's TWOPOINTFIVE, a 26-minute, frenetic sugar rush of dexterous rhyming and dazzling hooks.

It feels somewhat like kismet that, despite their different arcs and very different approaches, Kaytranada and Aminé's trajectories have led them right back to one another. And, if any wrinkles were left, they've been smoothed out on KAYTRAMINÉ. From the very first track, "Who He Iz," to the triumphant two-part closer, "K&A," the record runs like a compilation of their best musical instincts compressed, refined and fine-tuned to a punchy summer frequency. Aminé raps with more cheeky temerity here than he has perhaps anywhere else. On the opener he claims to be "one of the few men who know where the clit is." His hooks are sterling — gruff and plosive when the occasion calls for it, lithe and limber elsewhere. "4EVA," the Pharrell-assisted lead single, has a sticky, propellant chorus resting pleasantly in the pocket between sweaty nightclub dance floor and tipsy summer block party. And where, in the past, Aminé's penchant for '00s pop culture reference could border on goofily incessant, here he unloads his deepest cache yet to surprisingly amusing effect: he's in Jamaica barefoot like Joss Stone; he's a smart guy and you're Omar Gooding.

Here, as well, the features function as more than vanity co-signs. An eclectic assemblage, they serve as varied yet savvy invites to the pair's breezy fête. On "Master P," Big Sean delivers a nimble, authoritative guest verse, matching Aminé's puffed-up energy. As ever, Freddie Gibbs assumes his role as sentient Black & Mild on "letstalkaboutit" and smokes out the room. Rising Ghanaian star Amaarae's crystalline falsetto slinks smoothly over a space-age bossa nova on "Sossaup." "EYE" is like a carbon copy of a peak Neptunes song. In spite (or, perhaps, because) of this, Snoop Dogg sounds about as fresh and vibrant as your favorite 51-year-old uncle can. Each adds something to the album's get-together feel.

What's most apparent on KAYTRAMINÉ, however, is that the co-billed duo really does work well together. As inventive and adept a beatsmith as there is operating right now, Kaytranada's work still shines most when he has a rhythmic, melody-savvy vocalist to accompany it. And, for all his improvement as a vocalist and songwriter, Aminé is at his best when he has something groovy and propulsive to stage his irreverent antics upon. Arpeggiated synth notes twinkle over a syrupy Rhodes chord progression and stuttering drum pocket on "letstalkaboutit," as Aminé boasts, "I wanna have our accounts have a Verzuz." It's like peanut butter and chocolate, and this synergy gives the project a contagious élan.

Kaytranada and Aminé are two artists who have had to surmount a bit of outsider's anxiety to get here. Early in his career, Aminé went out of his way to remind us that he was the black kid from a small city not historically associated with hip-hop as he was trying to be taken seriously as a rapper. At the start, Kaytranada seemed blanketed by a sheepish imposter syndrome. He was the closeted, anti-social bedroom producer. Now, having both achieved unignorable career success, they seem at ease. You can hear it in the music. They sound as if they have arrived, like two people finally assured of their right to be at the party — so assured, that they decided to throw their own.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jordan Coley