Piotr Niepsuj/Courtesy of the artist
Grime could not have scripted a better media moment for an album like Mr. Mitch’s Devout to come along. It’s as though after a decade of disrespecting it as England’s funny-accented rap cousin, America and the greater Internet is awakening to realize that the music many wrote off as a fad, has developed into broadly rooted culture. And Devout — the Catford, South London producer’s sophomore album — is a glorious testament to the musical and lyrical breadth of that culture.
Grime seems almost everywhere you choose to focus right now. Rinse FM‘s transformation from the jewel of London pirate radio into an international new-music giant has given grime’s home field new status. Global hip-hop lodestars such as Drake and Kanye West are welcoming the UK’s biggest MC’s onto their albums and stages in order to bolster their own shine; one such MC, Skepta, last year beat Radiohead and David Bowie for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize, while another, Stormzy, just scored grime’s first No. 1 album debut the same week he and Ed Sheeran tried to break the Internet with an Awards show duet that provided a glorious WTF moment. On the other end of the commercial spectrum, t q d — DJ/producers Royal-T, DJ Q and Flava D — explicitly paints the connections between grime and its progenitor, garage music, on UKG, one of the year’s best albums. And leftfield American electronic producers such as Rabit and Lotic have inhaled grime’s bright synths, digital dread and boom-bap rhythms to further push the music’s elastic mutation.
Mr. Mitch (aka 29-year-old Miles Mitchell) stands at the crossroads of these haps. Though his production and remix credits include the likes of Skepta and Rinse’s pop chanteuse Katy B, the aspects of grime he seems most excited by aren’t the ones making the music bigger — they’re making it broader. Boxed, the London club night and radio show he helps run, specializes in bass-heavy instrumental music under the grime umbrella, but it’s becoming increasingly hard-to-categorize; the same can be said for the records he is releasing on his Gobstopper label, as informed by ambiance and abstract electronics as by hip-hop.
The music Mitchell himself favors is too tuned-in and melodic to be thought of as experimental in the traditional sense; still there’s little precedence for these perfect miniatures made from turned-down rave keyboards, deep echoes and pizzicato. Mr. Mitch’s current direction became clear after the release of white-label remixes he called Peace Edits (compiled on 2013’s Peace Dubs, Vol. 1), on which he relocated a few of grime’s biggest names into a musical space that retained intensity, yet gained softness and introspection. Mitchell may bristle at the notion of being labeled a “grime composer,” but what his best subsequent works and collaborations have invoked are an urban romanticism expressed in a new type of electronic classical music. Devout simply ups the ante by retaining this feel for the length of an album, and wrapping it in a narrative.
First and foremost, Devout is a song-cycle about a relatively conservative subject: the importance of devotion and family in the artist’s life, on the occasion of the birth of his second son. A small handful of guest vocalists carry the storyline’s lyrical load: P Money raps a fatherhood diary entry-cum-anthem (“Priority”); Denai Moore presents a woman’s trepidations toward a budding relationship (“Fate”); Palmistry adds some dancehall-inflected self-loathing (“VPN”); and Py contributes a lightly funky, unrequited declaration (“Pleasure”). All are wrapped in an equally measured subtlety, with Mitchell’s occasional speak-singing and an appearance by his two sons adding to the intimate vibe.
Great as the vocal moments are, it is Mitchell’s music — the instrumentals — that is Devout‘s emotional centerpiece. Each is filled with a rhythmic reserve that only comes from a deep understanding of a beat, but for which the usual function of groove is secondary. “If I Wanted” chugs along on a breathy, low-end synth — its main focus coming from a repeated playful keyboard figure, its weight from the wide atmospheric chords in the background. Or there’s “Black Tide,” a nearly perfect unquantifiable construction wherein two high-register keyboards dance around each other the way woodwinds and strings often do in classical Japanese music, before giving way to a heavy-set repetitive figure straight outta one of Dre’s classic g-funk productions.
Maybe the track that most clearly defines Devout‘s and Mitchell’s place in grime’s current spotlight is “Lost Touch,” a collaboration with the London pianist and composer Duval Timothy. It’s one of the album’s busier pieces, with atmospheric synths and distorted outdoor samples taking up a lot of its contours. But a minute or so in, pizzicato strings start plucking out a simple figure, followed by a glockenspiel, and then by a lightly percussive beat. Together they create a finely tuned staccato rhythm, before the whole thing dissipates into ambient air. Only, after a pause, to begin again.
By Piotr Orlov