Allow Mr. Hudson to reintroduce himself. The musical polymath’s stunning return When The Machine Stops is a seductively minimal dreamscape which blooms with undeniable pop hooks. If Nicolas Winding Refn ever made a sequel to his neo-noir Drive, Mr. Hudson’s looming soundscapes, shot with shards of light, would be a pitch-perfect soundtrack. As well as an incisive comment on today’s social media world, the album is a poignantly personal exploration of modern isolation, and a subtle tribute to the creative magic that fruitful music communities can offer.
Mr Hudson knows all about that. From his star-making collaborations with Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music in the late ‘00s to dazzling work with Janelle Monae and Frank Ocean, Hudson has been a driving force in the musical flourishing of today’s most pioneering artists. But some artists aren’t destined for a life in the shadows. And a decade since the release of his most recent album, 2009’s critically-lauded Straight No Chaser, Mr Hudson is ready to step into the spotlight again, with his most focused and cohesive project to date.
“As soon as I thought ‘I need a palette for this record,’ I knew exactly what it was gonna be,” he says of the album’s prevailing icy feel. “I knew that the drums and the bass-line would come from a trap sensibility. Chopped vocals. Everything else would be sad and spooky. Some of my favourite records are cut from one cloth, and I tried to create a world with this one.”
And what a world it is. When The Machine Stops began to be gestate around two years ago. But you could argue that Hudson’s electric dreams for the record have been brewing for over a decade — when the Birmingham-born artist catapulted to international fame on the back of his sizeable contributions to Kanye West’s epoch-defining synth-rap odyssey 808s and Heartbreak. “Last year was that album’s ten-year anniversary,” Hudson explains. “It reminded me of how proud I was of that sound. It got me thinking about sort of picking up where it left off.” While greeted with skepticism from some hip-hop purists upon its release, 808s and Heartbreak’s genre-splicing minimalism has since been rightfully acknowledged as an inflection point for the sound of modern pop. “It made me realise that I wanted to revisit what I've tongue-in-cheek called ‘sad robot music.’”
Hudson’s soulful vocals — which in the past have soared on his music — are often Auto-Tuned to android-like textures here. On the choppy, pitch-black pop of “Black Mirror,” for instance, Hudson’s voice pierces like shards of glass, in a tone inspired by the affect-less delivery of Chet Baker. “He’s always been one of my musical heroes,” Hudson says. “But his vocal delivery is so poker faced - there are almost no dynamics. He's trying to sing like a trumpet being played quietly, with this occasionally emotionless delivery of very emotional topics.”
Another contributing factor to his relatively pared-down new sound is Hudson’s transient lifestyle, a knock-on effect of artists’ consistent demand for his production magic. “I've been working on my music on the move,” he explains. “In hotel rooms, in airport lounges, and even at my Mother's house. So I've not been doing big shouty vocals: I've been whispering into the microphone, to not be antisocial.” He offers a cinematic metaphor to sum up his peripateticism. “I've basically been Blade Runner,” he says with a laugh, before joking: “I can definitely relate to being a lonely android killer cop.”
When The Machine Stops seamlessly blends retro-futurism with bold modernity. That’s an interest that Hudson shares with his visionary modern collaborators like Janelle Monae, but is also rooted in EM Forster's 1909 short story The Machine Stops, a central reference point for the album (and from which the record takes its name). “It basically predicts the internet,” Hudson says. “Forster predicts that we'll end up living in tubes talking to each other, basically via FaceTime. The drama of the book is where it all goes wrong. So I guess [When The Machine Stops] is my millennial meditation on the fact that we're probably on some kind of tipping point of inescapable dependence on technology, and maybe I'm meditating on my anxiety about that.”
That conflicted point of view haunts the album. Hudson’s intuitive speak-singing reflects a deep knowledge of hip-hop styles on the propulsive, lurking “Tesla,” where vocals command a thick bass peppered with trap snares and unsettling sighs. Hudson vividly considers the hollowness of material wealth; the desensitizing payoff of a life of hustle. “When you’ve got money what does money mean?” he asks. “Who will I be if the engine ever stops?”
“Slept On Me,” meanwhile, is a lingering meditation on the tyranny of choice on the web, with pillowy synths that glow like orange light at sundown. “We're entering this ADD phase of humanity where we want to be able to flick between apps and swipe left and right on people,” Hudson explains. “People don't want to commit. [“Slept On Me”] is me saying, ‘You missed your chance.’ It's a moment of pride.”
Hudson has helped to foster a community of artists that forms an alternative to fickle trend-chasing. The lurking “Magic City” takes its name from the famed Atlanta strip club that Hudson visited with Janelle Monae and her Wondaland collective; appropriately, it features a disillusioned coda from Wondaland’s Josh Dean and a rapid fire fly on the wall verse “she the kind that don’t ask for tips” from rising star Taylor Bennett. Elsewhere, Atlantic Records’ Goody Grace adds a soul-searching, spoken-word portion to the elegiac, whiskey-soaked “Closing Time.” Meanwhile, future neo-soul star Schae, brings a vocal swagger to “Your Religion” — a glimmering trap-pop duet that’s the heart-eyes Emoji distilled into three minutes. It’s the first sign of a long-gestating creative partnership between the pair — Hudson’s produced her forthcoming debut project (Quavo’s already a fan). “Schae approached me to do an EP,” he says. “I like it when people say, ‘I want you to do a bunch of tracks.’ ‘Cause most of the time, it's like dating, and people say ‘I'm going to do one track with you, one with you, one with you.’ I liked her confidence.” Mr Hudson called on windy city native Vic Mensa for the anthemic "Chicago" and was confident it would be a successful combo "he's not afraid of wearing his heart on the sleeve of his motor cycle jacket".
Last but not least Petite Noir (whom Hudson met backstage in Capetown, South Africa) delivers a foreboding meditation on jealousy on “Black Mirror”
Partnerships like these make for a subtle rebuff to the indefatigable trend-chasing that often seems to define major label music today. Hudson’s ethos sits in proud opposition to an industry that funnels millions of dollars into turning an Instagram celebrity into a popstar, or where yodelling in Walmart is enough to score you a lucrative record deal. Over a submerged, James Blake-esque piano line on “Go Now,” Hudson skewers “clout-chasers,” in a bold rejection of industry manoeuvring that also foregrounds his ever-present desire to focus on his craft. “Throughout the history of entertainment, there have been people who use social climbing to promote their work,” he says. “And if you take pride in not being one of those people, as I do, then let that be a reward in itself. I'm not a clout-chaser, I've always done the opposite. Actually I take pleasure in being the opposite.”
“I remember 2Chainz saying to me, ‘Hudson, you got that stand-apart swag,’” Hudson recalls with a laugh, thinking back to his G.O.O.D. music years. “He said ‘Well you just go and stand over there and do your own thing." And I was like, ‘Thank you.’ I've seen enough of that VIP, velvet rope, you-can't-sit-with-us bollocks. It doesn't interest me.” It’s always the quiet ones.
When The Machine Stops is a subtle flex of Hudson’s prodigious skill and the culmination of his headline-grabbing collaborations to date: an up-to-the-minute interrogation of the way we live now, while also a timeless-feeling examination of how humans connect with each other. Speaking about his goals for the album, Hudson is characteristically modest. “I'm not necessarily expecting to be hosting The Voice, or having tea at the White House,” he says. “I haven't tried to make a pop record – I've just tried to make some good music. All I really do when I sit down in the studio is think, ‘What do I want to come out of the speakers?’” His masterful record is proof that you can expect to hear Mr Hudson coming from a lot more speakers soon.