On paper, everything looks great for HXLT. The Chicago-born singer/producer, whose onstage moniker is actually pronounced Holt, was very recently scouted and signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music imprint. There’s so much focus on Kanye at the moment, as well as various other G.O.O.D Music signees, most notably other new boy Desiigner, that dropping your debut right now seems like a pretty good idea. There’s very few people that could catapult a fledgling music career into the heavens like Kanye West. HXLT isn’t like other G.O.O.D members though.
Rather than being the kind of hard-hitting trap rapper that Ye seems to be into right now, HXLT creates punk music fed through the 808s and precision of hip-hop. We’ve seen our fair share of hip-hop/punk crossovers in recent years, most notably Death Grips and Ho99o9, but where these bands let punk's wildside dominate, HXLT tries to pull it back in, calm it down. In essence, he’s trying to mix hip-hop with post-punk. And this is something I can very much get behind. Just to add another layer to the authenticity cake, HXLT tries to keep everything as DIY as possible (aside from singing to a major label imprint I presume). He has near complete control over the project, having shot and directed every video, and produced every song on the album except for 'Guitar' which was produced by Mano, the guy responsible for The Weeknd’s 'The Hills'.
With that kind of hit making pedigree, it’s no surprise that 'Guitar' is the album’s highlight. It’s also the song that tries least to add punk elements. Sharp drums click in the background, keeping HXLT’s understated vocal in check, before heading towards a big chorus that hears HXLT lament that “I wish I could play guitar and write all the songs that’ll make me rich” under soft padded synths. It’s so smooth, it’s almost Miguel-like. Nothing else quite comes close.
HXLT is an album that doesn’t really know what it’s doing. HXLT’s voice is neither angry enough to come across as punk, nor technically powerful enough to hold up as an R&B singer. His vocal melodies just don’t sit right and can’t fill the sparse production that is sporadically clicks and chimes in the background. Opener “Reaper” is a prime example. In other hands, the constantly changing melody lines and cheesy 808s could sound slick, but when they culminate in the weird Seventies harmony-laden chorus that you’re taken to by HXLT instead, it just doesn’t work.
Within every song there are bits that work and bits that don’t and it’s this inconsistency that marrs the album. Take first single 'Sick'. The chorus is dreadful, sounding like it was written by a recently jilted 17-year-old, not helped by the fact that HXLT delivers the lines “You’re crazy! And you’re stupid! And you’re psycho! You make me sick!” like a man who’s only expose to Eighties hardcore is a BBC 4 documentary he once watched. But despite all this, the outro is maddeningly brilliant, HXLT finally singing in a key more suited to his voice he’s, whilst a shimmering guitar and relentless bass sound like a more mechanical Joy Division underneath him. Nearly every song suffers this fate of inconsistency, apart from 'Rock ‘n’ Roll' which is an awkward listen all the way through (seriously it features, with no irony, the line “I want to rock ‘n’ roll your face off”).
Interestingly two of the better songs have a female vocal for him to bounce off of, the first being 'Together' which features Kathleen Hannah and the second 'Moonrise', whose call-and-response vocals and new wave guitars make the track sound like an early Spandau Ballet cut (you know, when they were cool).
It’s not enough to save the album though, and ultimately, HXLT needs to try and hone his sound more, which given who his label mates are, shouldn’t prove difficult. I mean, if he gets really stuck, I’m sure Yeezy will have a spare five minutes to help.
5Christian Northwood 's Score