Ezra Rubin’s debut LP is an earnest and subdued attempt at making his soulful, ominous, post-club productions agreeable to a general audience.
Ezra Rubin (aka Kingdom) is an architect of the post-club sound—a new profile cleaved from caustic synthesizers, herky jerk percussion, and crying on the dancefloor. The melting pot of sounds he and his collaborators in Fade to Mind (Nguzunguzu, Total Freedom) and Night Slugs (Bok Bok, L-Vis 1990) offered pulled from UK garage, dancehall, and diva-driven house that still seems prescient. Rubin, in particular, helped shaped a postmodern vision of R&B alongside Kelela and Dawn Richard that’s influenced everyone from FKA twigs to Justin Bieber. Rubin was staged to make a pop crossover. His debut LP, the delightfully titled Tears in the Club, is an earnest and subdued attempt at making his panoply of sounds agreeable to a general audience.
This is immediately clear from the album’s opening moment, “What Is Love,” a collaboration with SZA. Rubin is no stranger to producing for powerhouse vocalists, but with Tears in the Club he dips his toe into the world of major label team-ups, and the result has neutered the outré aspects of his sound. On “What Is Love,” certain trademarks still pop up—vaporous synth pulses and staccato percussion—but he’s slowed down the normally breakneck pace of his music to somewhere sleepier and almost lackadaisical. In the past, Rubin’s slow jams (Dawn Richards “Paint It Blue” for example) had a seething atmosphere just bubbling beneath the surface. With SZA, that feel is gone. This is also true of some of his solo tracks. “Nurtureworld” is a confusingly out-of-focus dance track that spends most of its three minutes finding its proper footing, and the album’s title track is a defanged version of the controlled chaos he once offered.
Yet, Kingdom recovers from these missteps. “Each & Every Day,” his collaboration with Vine star Najee Daniels, adds a shot of bubblegum into his otherwise ominous productions. It resembles what Charli XCX would sound like singing over a DJ Rashad beat. His second song with SZA, “Down 4 Whatever,” benefits from the more vigorous, energetic beat Rubin provides. A solo track called “Into the Fold,” offers a picture of what pop-ified post-club music could sound like—bright whacks of drums and smokey looped vocals mingle well with more experimental elements like a dissonant hiss in the background. But his thesis statement for this album comes on a song with the Internet’s Syd, who might be the perfect vocalist for Kingdom’s attempt at a crossover style. Her slinky voice follows Kingdom’s syncopations beat for beat, and the protean, mercurial change in pace befits Syd’s ability to pitch shift on the fly. It’s a promising peek into what Kingdom could do for a radio-ready artist.
On a recent release, Vertical XL EP, Rubin filled inhuman sounds with soul, and Tears in the Club attempts to take that idea to a mass audience. One wonders if he is unintentionally softening his music for the sake of a breezier product. It’s less a statement of purpose and more of an experiment with an inconclusive hypothesis. Instead of heightening, or focusing the pandemonium he could unleash on the dancefloor, his work is denatured by a fairweather disposition. Even if he never means to, Tears in the Club is a disappointingly genteel work, from an artist known for anything but.