Jacob Collier’s New Album is a Maddening Listening Experience

Jacob Collier is, at the very least, interesting as a musicianHaving made his start on YouTube by producing Brady Bunch intro-style covers of jazz standards like George Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm”, he quickly cemented his place in online jazzhead culture. Though he wasn’t putting forth original compositions, his talents as an instrumentalist and arranger were made exceedingly clear. Over time, consensus around him developed to declare him a generational talent, honestly a fair descriptor even today. His understanding of vocal harmony and music theory as a whole is staggering, and it makes for some of the most intricate, complex, and enjoyable viral music content YouTube has to offer. In October of 2018, after winning 2 Grammys for his cover-heavy album “In My Room”, Collier decided to fully break out of the “YouTube artist” mold by releasing Djesse Vol. 1, the first of four parts in a series that would be mostly or exclusively original compositions and, hopefully, elevate him to the status of “real musician”. What became abundantly clear is that Jacob Collier is a man with limitless talent and no taste.

What became abundantly clear is that Jacob Collier is a man with limitless talent and no taste.

While his first two “real” projects, Volumes 1 and 2 of the “Djesse” series, do well to demonstrate this problem, they also embody much the same creative current of his earlier work.  Working with the Metropole Orkest on Volume 1, Eric Whitacre-esque hauntingly layered choral arrangements still sit prominently as the main draw to the album. Put Djesse Vol. 1 side to side with any contemporary jazz or jazz fusion release, and you’ll see that Jacob Collier isn’t really doing anything to break out of his previously established niche. On Volume 2, the songwriting sits much closer to twee and indie folk, but his choices to work with other prominent music YouTubers like dodie as well as releasing covers as singles leaves the project in a sort of tonal borderland, not really adhering to the conventions of being an online creator, but still not differentiating itself from others within its field to break out and be considered something wholly its own. This dynamic creates an environment in which Djesse Vol. 1 and 2 get to escape more serious criticism and analysis, as the bar of expectation for music released by YouTube creators tends to be far lower than for those who began their careers grinding at open mics and garage shows or performing for no pay. Djesse Vol. 3 breaks this mold by being Jacob’s first attempt at a totally original, serious breakthrough.

This project tries very hard to be a serious R&B album. In its underlying grooves, that sometimes comes through really well. Compositionally, Jacob Collier is pretty frequently up to par. What brings the whole experience down on most tracks is the implementation of his own vocals, which usually come accompanied with aggressive harmonization and over-stylized mixing. These passages mark the whole project as distinctly Jacob Collier while simultaneously completely upsetting any vibe that may have existed. “Time Alone With You”, one of the album’s singles, might be the strongest piece of evidence for this. Heavily utilizing a Daniel Caesar feature, the track would hardly feel out of place in the current sleepy, stripped back, vibe-centric R&B market. In a lot of ways, it’s a pretty solid Neo-Soul throwback cut, with strong D’Angelo energy. But when Collier throws in his aggressively white, children’s choral arrangement vocal harmonies on a legitimately grooving vocal performance, it feels like the room has been filled with an expansive, bloated presence, one that’s entirely unwelcome. Listening to Jacob Collier frequently feels like if you were sitting at a booth in a dark jazz club, totally locked into the music, and all of a sudden the blueberry girl from Willy Wonka pops into existence right in the middle of the table. This bulbous, exigent phantom completely dominates the mix, overtaking a given song entirely. It squashes the atmosphere, denying the listener the ability to fully engage with the music. This is Jacob Collier’s gravest sin as a musician. ~

Listening to Jacob Collier frequently feels like if you were sitting at a booth in a dark jazz club, totally locked into the music, and all of a sudden the blueberry girl from Willy Wonka pops into existence right in the middle of the table.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that you can sense moments of legitimate talent, quality, arguably even brilliance coming through at several points across the album. The track “All I Need” featuring Mahalia and Ty Dolla $ign is an undeniably fantastic song 95% of the time, but he places these short vocal stings throughout the verses that just massively over complicate it. “In Too Deep” is a perfect example of him overestimating the fittingness of his vocal lines. He gives this breathy, strange delivery soaked in British pastiness to a trap beat soul song that feels lifted straight from a Khalid project. So many tracks on this project feel like such wasted potential. Were Collier to record instrumentals and only invite other artists in to lend vocals to his songs rather than record many of them himself, most of this album could be a really excellent listen. Where most of the project suffers from a serious case of hubris running otherwise better material, there are still a handful of tracks that are just out and out terrible.

There are 3 interlude tracks on the album, and all of them feel very odd to say the least. Jacob attempts to venture into the more experimental end of jazz and R&B composition, and each of these attempts falls flat on its face. The album opens with one of these tracks, “CLARITY”, and sets the stage for a truly strange listening experience.  He includes small snippets of tracks yet to come on the album, playing them in reverse order, distorting them in a way that sort of affects the feeling of time running in reverse. The highest and best form of this in popular music might be “Duckworth” off of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., which ends with a truncated “reverse play” of the entire album, looping back to the first line of the first track. On that project, the effect had a clear thematic purpose, tying together a series of vignettes about the negative emotional spiral and violence that cycles through and plagues the Black community. On Djesse, the effect feels pretentious and unnecessary.  Launching the album with this idea is strange, since we haven’t actually heard any of the tracks being referenced before. Coupled with this is the fact that Djesse Vol. 3 doesn’t really have a central theme or idea. It’s a collection of tracks all loosely associated by their discussion of romance, sex, or relationships in some form.

“Light It Up On Me” comes towards the albums close, and while it feels much closer to a fully realized musical idea than the opener, it feels incredibly out of place amongst a group of tracks that mostly don’t mean anything. The song’s glitchy, uneven rhythms are cool and interesting in abstract, but they just don’t fit within the broader context of this project. Probably the most egregious of these tracks is “Butterflies”, which manages to craft a legitimately bumping instrumental, very reminiscent of Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma, and then takes a hot steaming dump all over it with an excessively immature sex metaphor about “wanting to feel your butterflies”. Just an incredibly odd song to listen to.

The highs are certainly high, but the depth of the lows brings in a level of frustration that I rarely feel when listening to music, souring the mood entirely.

I’d like to offer some positive thoughts on Djesse Vol. 3, though, since there are a number of admirable things about this project. The second track of this album is comical to listen to, with Jacob attempting a sort of pop-rap club banger track, lending his voice to perform speed rap verses. Great for a hearty laugh, unfortunately not much beyond that. On a more serious note, a good number of the instrumentals are pretty stellar, highlights being the aforementioned “All I Need” and “Time Alone With You”. Also a standout is “He Won’t Hold You”, which has a pretty solid feature from Rapsody and throws back to early 20th century African-American spirituals with a composition that is just dripping with this robust warmth and sincerity.

Unfortunately, these few positives don’t do enough to salvage the album. Djesse Vol. 3 and Jacob Collier’s music overall doesn’t suffer from being bad, in fact it can sometimes be quite good. His fatal flaw as an artist is that he consistently wastes his potential. Had Jacob followed the more traditional career path of building up a catalog, playing in clubs, and refining his sound before making it big, he may have put out some truly excellent music. Though it’s certainly made him quite popular, it seems to me that YouTube success has actually held him back in many ways, giving many in both his audience and the industry at large lowered expectations of what he should be capable of. We can see this dynamic much more starkly in the relative successes of plenty of other artists who broke out of YouTube, whether it be those using music to further their brands like Logan and Jake Paul, or even others, like Jacob, attempting to forge serious careers separate from their previous endeavors like Joji or Rich Brian. What makes the case of Jacob Collier most frustrating is, again, his raw talent. This man is fully capable of producing excellent music, were he only able to temper some of his worst excesses. The highs are certainly high, but the depth of the lows brings in a level of frustration that I rarely feel when listening to music, souring the mood entirely. 2/10.

Colin Brunson is .WAV’s Livestream Director, he wrote the article. Image Credit: Djesse Vol. 3 Cover Art.