Words by: Nick Zurko
Despite struggling massively in math as a child, writing and reading were things I took to as if the book and pencil were extensions of my body–though considering the shitty quality of my penmanship, perhaps the pencil was more a poorly-made prosthetic. For as much as I loved to read and write though, writing–as it does for many–remained something that while natural, felt more like a chore than a joy (as it does now). In particular, I could never jive with those teachers who would preach the power of journaling as a means of self-therapy. Being a severe perfectionist and full of self-loathing, any prolonged exercise in writing would morph into a merciless critique followed by a shallow depression. And then I started this site, where I found myself seeking out topics to write about that I didn’t really understand my own feelings on as though it might mean months of procrastination and re-writes, at one point or another, writing became a path to a certain kind of clarity. Plus, it, like, super helped me figure out my sexuality.
Two months ago or so, I was in one of my go-to record shops, 2Bridges, when from the owner’s turntable came what sounded like a grime track being played at the same time as a kuduro drum track. Asking what it was, the homie pointed to the stark white sleeve and the contiguous strokes making up the painterly filigree adorning the cover of the latest extended offering from the always on-point–and lately, only more so–Príncipe label. Based in Lisbon, the imprint tapped into city’s street music scene and the batida sound that was being cultivated by a number of Angolan immigrants who took the rhythmic DNA of their home country and synthesized it with the balmy atmosphere and rowdiness of a block party, somehow capturing that explosive, off-kilter energy in the tracks themselves.
Since emerging in 2012 with DJ Marfox’s agenda-setting Eu Sei Quem Sou EP, the Príncipe label has consistently pushed the boundaries of batida–a constantly in-flux amalgamation of kuduro, tarraxinha, kwaito, and kizomba, to name just a few–while also incorporating western elements into its music to lend it an uncanny sensibility of being both a provincial sound that’s been stylistically globalized. Following the initial press flair-up between 2013 and 2014 as western scribes scrambled to make sense of a dance music that is as rhizomatic as it is other. Of course, once the hype settled down, things started to get truly exciting with the label as releases from B.N.M and Normal Nada demonstrated the vast range of BPMs and peculiar sonics the label’s producers were eager to explore–the latter’s “Kakarak 1” and “Kakarak 2” sound like Pansonic if they were to let their hair down for a day at the beach, all the while retaining a tough industrial edge that’s unlike anything I’ve heard.
And while the label’s output begs to be oversimplified and reduced to its rhythmic components, however vexing they may be, the past year has seen both veterans and newcomers expand the sonic vocabulary in such a way as to make defining a “Príncipe sound” virtually impossible. Releasing its first two artist full-lengths in the forms of Nídia’s brilliantly brief Nídia É Má, Nídia É Fudida and scene veteran DJ Lycox’s magisterial cross-genre exploration on Sonhos & Pesadelos. For this listener, by the time I had listened to both LP’s at length, I knew that I knew nothing about the world of Príncipe and for a label who catalog I own nearly half of, this is one of the most exciting feelings I could have as a music fan.
Still, being only three months into the new year, I wasn’t expecting the brain-scrambling mini-LP delivered by the debut of nineteen year-old P. Adrix–born in Lisbon, relocated to Manchester at fifteen–who prior to the release of his mini-album had only the grime-inflected “Estilo Underground” from 2016’s massive Mambos Levis D’Outro Mundo comp under the alias of Puto Adriano. Amongst the twenty-three tracks on hand, the track didn’t quite command the attention that Album Desconhecido commands of the listener right from the start as the melting BoC-style melody of “Zelda Shyt” gives way to the most languid, unhurried beat I’ve ever heard grace a record on the label, sounding like that drug-addled fried egg from the 80s iteration of the drug war, simply baking away as ghostly moans replace the frying pan sizzle. The track regularly gives in to exhaustion (or is it ennui?), switching to a halftime bloom-blop and then back again, ending just as the listener starts to grasp its unholy groove. It’s stupidly simple and yet it sounds like nothing else out there. And in spite of the fact the track seems designed to scare away any trend-hopping interlopers, it’s not like things get much easier from there as Adrix splits the difference between Lycox four-minute song-dances and Nídia’s two-minutes-and-less batida beatdowns, keeping attentive listeners on their toes throughout. A sloth-like cowbell melody that sounds like it could have come from a Quaalude-addled Dennis Young soon picks up speed on “Bola de Cristal,” which plays like a rather tame rhythm track until its final thirty seconds unleash a slithering, bouncy bassline. The tortured screams of “6.6.6” signal the start of a manic, martial beat with machine gun kick drum flourishes and smartly-placed snare rolls.
“Estação de Queluz” signals something of a tonal change following the grimy dankness of the preceding three tracks as a melancholic smear of a melisma existing somewhere between a woodwind and reed instrument curlicues its way around the high-end, the beat stumbling upon itself in a perverted riddim, the woodblocks elegantly flim-flamming on the fourth beat. Where the former track rides out a beatific groove for a solid two-and-a-half minutes, A-side closer “Ovni” makes the most of its sub-two minute runtime as its raucous toms clumsily rush to catch up with the ascending birdcall of a topline before what sounds like a compressed bass wobble stab elevates the energy as the flutes run wild and screams from the street float into the window.
Whereas Nídia utilized her often under-two-minute track length to explore the space between the beats, creating rhythmic pyrotechnics through restraint rather than a surfeit of ideas, P. Adrix is a different kind of maximal minimalist as the slightest change in rhythm, structure, or sound can signal a paradigm shift in the song’s progression. Where Nídia excelled at bare-bones tracks, there’s something decidedly more composed about P. Adrix’s work, though don’t expect no verse-chorus-verse-bridge structure here. Rather, his tracks often glide through a series of movements; slight adjustments and changes to the dominant motif that keeps the listener engaged and guessing.
One of the most enduring elements of the batida proffered by the artists on Príncipe is that their melodies and rhythms often seem to emulate the natural rhythms and tunes that organically come into being everywhere one turns, as long as they are listening close enough. From a pencil rolling down a roof to the rhythms made by the wheels on the bus going round, so many of the artists on Príncipe seem preternaturually in tune with the rhythm of the universe and thus are able to so elegantly pervert the listener’s expectations, even on a seemingly straight-forward chanter like B1 cut “Abertura de Roda” when a disruptive bass note enters the mix, sending everything a bit aslant as the dancers shout the night out of existence. Things get really interesting on “Sonhos,” centered around a lounge-y glockenspiel glissando under which Adrix assembles his rhythmic elements like building blocks. If Nídia is the Frank Gehry of batida, all hyper-smooth surfaces and breath-taking inclines, Adrix is Le Corbusier, each part painfully clear yet when one tries to take in the full image, the mental faculties falter.
Limping in on a imply staggered kick and tom beats and leaning on a softly treated acoustic guitar is “Tejo,” which plays like something of a batida lullaby as the six strings call to mind a dimmer view of the Iberian peninsula then we’re used to below a somber melodica starts inserting itself into the rhythmic negative spaces as the producer conjures up a sense of displacement, of being stuck between two cultures while trying to forge one’s own voice without the baggage. On the vinyl edition, the album closes on something of a renewed upturn as the despondent atmosphere of “Tejo” is traded in for one of alienation, the flute melody again sounding stuck somewhere between a Lisbon street party and a grime instrumental. Digital listeners are treated to a tenth track with “Tornado,” a blustering whirlwind of a beat where the shuffling percussion is muted just so and punctuated by a two-note bassline while the Rumba’s hoover patch screeches across the top of the mix, as does a cow a la Twister.
One of the words certain music fans use that I try never to use is “challenging.” Why? Because it posits an antagonistic relationship with music where that which doesn’t fit neatly into one’s frame of expectation is given the dubious distinction of being ‘difficult.’ Of course, music can be studied and one can choose to take the time to familiarize oneself with the strange and the new until it’s no longer as such; basically, calling something challenging is a lazy-ass move that I’ve noticed a sharp uptick that parallels Spotify’s culture of auto cruise listening. Now, all that said, I’d be fucking lying if I said that after two months, I’m still working to wrap my head around the music of P. Adrix for, like Nídia, his is an eminently slippery music whose often clunky yet hypnotic melodies trick the listener into seeking familiar grooves and sonic tropes where there are none. When Adrix does seem to pay deference to either Lisbon or Manchester, it’s never with a smile but rather an agonized grimace, an unfulfilled desire to feel comfortable someplace, anyplace. If batida is party music, then the music of P. Adrix is for the party after the wake. It might seem similar and provide some degree of comfort, but at the end of each listen, you find yourself right back where you started. You can either accept it or go kicking and screaming into the dying night. P. Adrix appears to do both.