In four songs and 15 minutes, the producer who'll play Buku Friday synthesizes two decades of electronic music to make something more reflective than it might seem at first.
I first interviewed AF the Naysayer in 2015 after the release of The Autodidact Instrumentals Vol. 1. The album/long EP collected tracks that began life as songs to accompany a Baton Rouge rapper, but when the project fell apart, the pieces got the opportunity to stand on their own. They had the living, breathing pocket of a J. Dilla song—an influence, AF says—and the sonic language of ’80s. He employed not only the sounds of video games—though they influenced him—but sleek, metallic and plastic synth lines articulating voices that are not found in nature. At the time, The Autodidact Instrumentals sounded like a signal flare designed to help him find the community of like-minded people whose voices were marginalized by Fetty Wap, The Weeknd, Wiz Khalifa, and other hitmakers that year.
It’s tempting to say that hip-hop has caught up to AF the Naysayer in 2019, but that’s not quite right. Cardi B. and Post Malone aren’t missing their next biggest hits by sleeping on his Parts Act. 1, but he’s not as alone in his musical world as he used to be. The soundtrack to Stranger Things worked with a similar vocabulary and helped usher those sounds back into the musical world. The bandwagon hasn’t rolled AF up either because there has always been more to his sound. He has folded the mid-’90s glitch percussive elements into his tracks, and glitch’s aesthetic fascination with deterioration helps to shape his pieces as well. Every track sounds as if it was recorded on a mixer with one channel that caught too much of a spilled coffee or has a wire that’s working loose. When rapper Darby Capital explodes into “Honey Vinegar” on Parts Act 1, he does so with such ferocity that he pins the needles in the red and distorts badly. AF didn’t fix that, though. Capital’s intensity doubles as his performance is paired with an electronic crackle that makes the first line, “Ohmigod it's automatic fire,” sound like something he discovered as it burned his shirt.
I’ve wondered at times if AF’s naysaying was to the hip-hop mainstream, proposing a moodier, more imaginative alternative to the tyranny of 808s, though a recent live performance at Gasa Gasa suggested that maybe had come to peace with hip-hop’s dominant sounds. Parts Act 1 makes me think I had it right the first time. AF clearly loves hip-hop, but he envisions alternatives. Three of the EP’s four tracks involve vocals, but two of them are rapped in Mandarin by Taiwanese rappers Ill Mo and Formo Sir. “Whirlpool” with Ill Mo is the most conventional track on the EP complete with some trunk-rattling bass, and it serves as an ad for AF’s production skills for future rappers. Ill Mo’s delivery mutes any quibbles that stem from not knowing what he’s saying, and Formo Sir often sounds close to English, particularly with a stray English word, phrase, or name emerges for a moment.
“Don’t Forget My Energy” echoes another ‘90s moment—the release of DJ Shadow’s Entroducing. AF’s track has a jauntier groove, nor is as self-consciously a collaged creation. Both tracks live in a soundscape where surface noise is a fact of life and parts compete for attention, emerging and receding dub style in the process.
In the ’90s though, all of these aesthetics were in competition, and AF the Naysayer pulls them together in his music with technology and musical impulses that weren’t on the table at the time. Parts Act 1 is a synthesis that could only exist now and one that makes sense as he considers what he can borrow from cultural moments and products and harness into a singular project. The “Act 1” in the title suggests that there is more to come, and it will be interesting to see where it goes because the title invites listeners to hear the EP in conjunction with the re-evaluation process that he is undergoing in his life. Recent interviews show him rethinking career goals and personal goals, which frames these songs as his current take on the artist he was at the start of his career. The probability of future acts is just as intriguing as seeing where AF himself will go next.
AF the Naysayer will play an EP release party with Cavalier, Charm Taylor, and Mykia Jovan at Gasa Gasa on Friday, March 29.