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Malaa’s ‘Illicit’ EP makes for a passable debut

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When the remix package for Major Lazer and DJ Snake’s unfathomably popular “Lean On” arrived last year, it contained a special little surprise. Slipped in between reworks from titans like Dillon Francis and Ephwurd was a contribution from an unknown producer — Malaa. His offering in particular diverged from the others on the EP, proffering a uniquely dark spin on the ubiquitous track that undulated between dreamy downtempo breaks and pulsating future house drops. Collectively, listeners demanded the question: “Who is Malaa?”

Not long after his debut, a series of mixes, which drew their names from the above question, appeared on SoundCloud, symbolically asking and answering the posed question. The chameleonic ski mask artwork which accompanied each mix seemed to tell listeners, “I’m everyone and no one.” Well-cited theories have suggested that Malaa is Snake, Tchami, Mercer, or a covert combination of the trio. Whether or not such theories are true, the critical focus of his output deliberately shifted back to the music which has always been undeniably fresh.

Malaa’s high-quality festival sets and the Pardon My French tour have brought fan fervor to a fever pitch just in time for the mysterious DJ’s debut EP, Illicit. Spanning four tracks (or three, discounting the brief, cringeworthy introduction) Illicit serves as a neat, but perhaps ill-conceived cross section of the masked producer’s current headspace.

“This is Malaa music, you can listen to this shit at the club and go rob a bank afterwards,” announces the clandestine vocal at the outset of the EP. “This is the shit we live for—real house music.” In the Illicit intro, which reaches for a Rick Ross timbre, Malaa’s intent to evoke gangster sensibilities is obvious, but his overcompensation is a bit too transparent to feel genuine. This shortcoming permeates the release and is by far the weakest aspect of the EP.

In many of his cryptic promo videos, Malaa claims to channel the spirit of old school house, but Illicit only seems to imbue modern thuggery into a vintage tradition. While many of the beats and samples are ripped from the playbook of future house production trends, the tracks too frequently dip into a totally inauthentic “gangster” mode and misplaced misogyny. It’s a confusing move for a producer who claims to champion “real house music” to reject the inclusive spirit of real house music. 

Aside from its varied shortcomings, much of the EP would be a welcome addition to a the peak hours of a Saturday night club set. The digital timpani-inspired lead synth that drives  “Diamonds” evokes the playful Soulja Boy sensibilities that typified the hip hop of the late 2000s and will likely earn a dominant spot in the summer festival circuit.

“Danger,” however, is Hyundai commercial fodder at best, capitalizing upon bass house trends in a hackneyed fashion. Undoubtedly, “Frequency 75” is the album’s strongest selection, ringing like an old school UK garage track that has traveled through time and space into 2016. With the song’s combination of reverberant bass lines, uniquely freakish synthesis, and fluid, but perennially pounding percussion, “Frequency 75” is a track that is accessible for any dancefloor, but is also innovative in its own right.

While Illicit will likely generate buzz, it’s a mid-range effort from an exciting producer who is capable of more. The “Who is Malaa” mix series, for example, provides a more complete and enigmatic introduction to the inscrutable artist’s work. While Illicit is by no means a letdown, Malaa would be well-served to focus more on his house strong suits than his gangster image aspirations on a sophomore release.

Illicit is out now on iTunes and Spotify via Confession.

 

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