Rhapsody Radar, Week 3: Com Truise, Aurelio Martinez, The Antlers, Natalia Jiménez, Big Sean, And Natalia Kills
Welcome to another edition of Rhapsody Radar, our month-long survey of 24 up-and-coming artists that excite us. For a peek at what you've missed so far, here's a playlist of our first dozen honorees. And now we move on to a new batch, featuring a slow-burning blog-rap upstart, an Afro-Latin innovator (and politician!), Radiohead-esque indie rockers, a nostalgia-drenched electro-funker, and two women named Natalia (one a Latin-pop diva, the other a will.i.am-abetted pop star in training). Read on and listen in below.
Com Truise: The Synthesizer-Wielding Retro-Futurist
For many fans, science fiction offers an escape from reality. For Seth Haley, it offered him an escape from his day job. The gleaming, retro-futurist electronica he records as Com Truise caught on with listeners so quickly that, just a year after his first EP under the alias, he's remixed the likes of Daft Punk and Neon Indian, released his debut album on the acclaimed Ghostly International label, and turned in his resignation as an art director in anticipation of an upcoming world tour.
Titles like "Terminal," "Futureworld" and "VHS Sex" offer a good approximation of Com Truise's preoccupations. His pealing synthesizers reveal an artist who's logged hours and hours immersed in Vangelis' sound-world for Blade Runner, while his shuddering beats are unrepentantly nostalgic for the glory days of '80s electro-funk as heard through lysergic, rose-tinted headphones. --Philip Sherburne
Key Tracks: "Fairlight," "Terminal," "VHS Sex"
Aurelio Martinez: The Garifuna Innovator and Singing Congressman
Aurelio Martinez makes the rest of us feel lazy and woefully mediocre but in, you know, the best possible way. Beloved in his native Honduras and acclaimed among connoisseurs of Afro-Latin music everywhere for his sunny grooves, cascading guitar riffs and earthy vocals, he's also widely respected as a master of the rich tradition of Garifuna music. Descendants of Africans who escaped slave ships and built communities with the local Arawakan population along the Caribbean coast of Central America, contemporary Garifuna musicians are heirs to one of the world's most distinctive and resilient cultures. Because they escaped slavery, early Garifuna musicians managed to more delicately preserve African musical traditions that were snuffed out elsewhere, even as they created new, hybridized styles reflecting their surroundings. Contemporary Garifuna music, accordingly, encompasses several styles that are at once richly diasporic and inherently inventive, including percussive religious music; the acoustic-guitar-driven paranda; and the various permutations of the punta rock genre created by the late, great savior of Garifuna music, Andy Palacio, who passed away in 2008.
Widely considered the heir to Palacio's throne, Martinez also takes up his elder's penchant for adaptation and innovation. With one respected "traditional" Garifuna pop album (2004's Garifuna Soul) under his belt, he wowed critics and fans alike even more with this year's Laru Beya. The album pushes into sleek, chic and sometimes astounding new directions. Swirling currents of often-unexpected sound (subtle horns here, surf-rock licks there). Vintage guitars and dubby, scratched-out beats. A globe-trotting aesthetic that jets from Afropop to Manu Chao. Searing critiques of the history of slavery ("Yurumei"). And the cross-cultural connections just keep coming: Afropop star Youssou N'Dour was so impressed with Martinez that he took him under his wing and brought him to Africa, where he earned cameos from such local titans as Orchestra Baobab and Senegalese rapper Sen Kumpe. Adding to that impressive pedigree is the fact that Laru Beya is the second-ever album released on Sub Pop's much-vaunted world-music imprint, Next Ambiance. Clearly, Martinez is a musical force to be reckoned with. Oh, and did we mention that, in his spare time, he also was elected to public office, becoming the first black deputy in the National Congress of Honduras? --Rachel Devitt
The Antlers: The Soft-Spoken Indie Rockers With Epic Ambitions
Back in the mid-'00s, young Peter Silberman was dutifully crafting lo-fi soundscapes in his tiny Brooklyn digs. He self-released a series of records, never quite nailing down a sound, but quietly mastering the art of songwriting. Then came Hospice. Initially Silberman's solo creation, the loose concept record follows a hospice worker and a terminally ill patient. It references Sylvia Plath. It touches on death, grief, guilt. It's downright depressing, but it's also utterly gorgeous, partly due to Silberman's willingness to expand The Antlers into a full-fledged band. Bringing on drummer Michael Lerner and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci allowed Hospice to be a fully realized entity, one whose sweeping post-rock dirges and heartbreaking melodies landed it on numerous Best of 2009 lists.
That means the band's follow-up had a lot to live up to, and 2011's Burst Apart absolutely does. The Antlers' first true collaborative effort, it's smoother, more intricate and more robust than its acclaimed predecessor. Still, the band never dares to drown out Silberman, whose powerful falsetto and intimate songwriting paint pictures so poignant and vivid they'd have Freud drooling (see "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out"). With a stronger electronic influence subtly weaved throughout, Radiohead comparisons are inevitable and we can't think of a better compliment. --Stephanie Benson
Natalia Jiménez: The Jet-Setting, Controversy-Baiting Latin Diva
At the ripe old age of 30, up-and-coming Latin diva Natalia Jiménez has already enjoyed one super-successful career as a pop star, and is now on to her second. The former lead singer of pop-rock outfit La 5a Estacion was already a beloved icon in both the band's hometown of Madrid and its adopted country of Mexico (where they moved to connect with their massive Latin American fan base). Then the offers to do solo gigs started rolling in, including a primo guest feature on Ricky Martin's "Lo Mejor de Mi Vida Eres Tu." Then she met Emilio Estefan, who was so impressed with the gorgeous star and her powerful, equally gorgeous voice that he wound up producing her solo debut.
That self-titled effort, out this month, finds Jiménez stretching her wings. Drawing inspiration from all her hometowns (Madrid, Mexico City and now, Miami), she tries out a host of Latin styles: sizzlingly danceable salsa, accordion-tinged Norteño, hip-hop flamenco, and her first English-language work. The result is perhaps more steeped in adult contemporary than one would wish for a singer with such an impressive voice (regardless of how many Celine Dion comparisons she's earned). But Jiménez's diva potential is undeniable. After all, this is an artist who bats away criticisms that lead single "Por Ser Tu Mujer" (which also appears as "I'll Do What It Takes" on the album) is a bit too submissive, and addressed the gossip swirling around her own real-life aborted wedding (which she cancelled on the day of) with a subsequent video wherein she wears a wedding dress and plays a runaway bride. She has also referred to herself as "stupendous" and has a reputation for absolutely killing recording session in just one take. Yeah, she's probably got another career or 15 in her. --R.D.
Big Sean: The Rap-Nerd Prodigy
Big Sean, who grew up in Detroit's suburbs, doesn't sound like Eminem, Slum Village or other heroes of "the D." His music seems borderless. Yet rap nerds who listen to his major-label debut, Finally Famous, will immediately locate its origins in the blogosphere, where Drake, Kid Cudi, Kanye West, The Neptunes and other fan-approved stars have inadvertently created a new form of pop-rap, one much sturdier than the New Jack-crazed style of the late '80s and less divisive than the G-funk soundtracks of the mid-'90s.
While the country is only hearing him now (thanks to the Chris Brown-mediated balladry of "My Last"), Sean has been a viable Internet quantity for years. His 2010 mixtape, Finally Famous Vol. 3, included high-wattage guests like Chiddy Bang, Bun B and Mike Posner. He used its popularity to launch a series of tours, and audiences crammed into nightclubs and ballrooms to sing along to viral hits like "Memories" and "What U Doin'."
That isn't to say that Sean has escaped criticism. As an honor-roll student at a Detroit preparatory school, he networked onto West's G.O.O.D. Music roster in 2007 before he'd even issued a mixtape. His uncomplicated (though lengthy -- four years is a long time to wait) rise triggers comparisons to Drake, who continues to himself generate accusations of being a "fake-indie" artist en route to Thank Me Later. But unlike the former Degrassi High: The Next Generation actor, who mixed contemporary R&B, pop and indie-rap with stunningly distinct results, Big Sean's Finally Famous has inspired debates about its quality, not his audacity.
Finally Famous is a modest delight, and that's not an underhanded compliment. Big Sean can kill 16 bars, dropping a revealing line so quick you'll miss it among the Lupe Fiasco and Wiz Khalifa appearances. His "Memories (Part II)" is essentially the 2010 original retrofitted with a new No I.D. beat and a maudlin John Legend chorus, but his verses about treasuring the here and now instead of pining for the future still ring true. And though he spends a lot of time bragging about the girls he screws and the designer clothes he wears this is hip-hop, after all he also picks apart a relationship's remains on "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" as he rues, "Crazy when a heart breaks it never breaks even." Big Sean's challenge in the months ahead is to prove that he not only belongs among his many co-signers, but potentially above them. --Mosi Reeves
Key Tracks: "Memories (Part II)," "My Last," "High"
Natalia Kills: The Ice Cold (and Smoking Hot) Dance-Pop Sensation
She makes dark, dramatic dance-pop that somehow balances twisted, confessional glimpses of her personal demons, a slight dominatrix aesthetic, and killer beats. She writes songs about loving zombies ("Do you love me for my body/ Or do you want me for my brain?") and crafts videos that stage (or at least imply) her own decapitation. She's whip-smart and multitalented, with a background in acting and filmmaking as well as music. She was signed by will.i.am, and her debut album is being partially produced by Akon. And oh yeah, she's smoking hot in that cool, somewhat terrifying, "ice queen dance diva" kind of way.
In short, British singer-songwriter Natalia Kills ought to be extremely poised for pop stardom, a status she's already achieved in Germany and is well on her way to attaining in the U.K. The artist born Natalia Keery-Fisher in Bradford began her performing career as a child actor, playing parts on BBC sitcoms and soaps all through school. Always interested in music and writing songs, she eventually released some material under the name Verbalicious, and created a thriving MySpace community before will.i.am discovered her and signed her to Interscope/Cherry Tree. Since then, Natalia has set about on a whirlwind networking tour: she's toured with Robyn and Kelis, and appeared on tracks by artists as disparate as FaR*EaSt Movement and LMFAO. She's also earned (favorable) comparisons to the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Impressive credentials, to be sure, but whether they'll add up to success in the U.S. when her album, Perfectionist, drops in August remains to be seen. Either way, we can't wait to see what this deliciously warped dance-pop queen-in-the-making does next. --R.D.