Actress’ fourth release has been called difficult and impenetrable. It has a droning, fragmented quality that some even call unlistenable. This distancing technique, which alienates and isolates the audience, has echoes with the art of playwright Bertolt Brecht, a person who cared far more deeply about using the stage a place for political outreach than as a place for entertainment. Brecht’s concern was social justice in Germany; Actress’ is a cultural exhaustion with genre and our experience of it (and specifically, I think, the genre of “black context.”) The parallels between Brecht and Actress as artists, as thinkers, bring the power of Actress’ eminently “unlistenable’ work to the fore. What Actress does in form is bring about an absolute distillation the urban post-colonial underdog.
In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Actress lays bare the functioning conditions of the Actress project (and arguably mythology), stating that “Actress is a character and there’s an overall image that the character is there to portray.” Actress is a disembodied work of art in itself, the last link in a Brechtian social chain spanning the project’s own influences, which are the sonic building blocks of Ghettoville: Drexciya, Prince, Moodymann, geometry, mundane Afrofuturism. For many, the record has sat within a register of responses of “I don’t really like this, but I’m not sure why.” It exists in this space because it sits outside of music, looking in.
The material from which Actress pulls is heavily rooted in the ideas of afrofuturism, a cultural movement among black artists which arose in the wake of the African Diaspora that promoted the combined elements of afrocentricity, magic realism, and science fiction. Artists from Sun Ra to Drexciya channeled the aesthetic of a future that was unreachably utopian, a fantasy. With Ghettoville, Actress is seen mining this aesthetic and setting its constituent parts on a stage, to be deconstructed before a live audience– not unlike the theater of Brecht, which places meaning on single scenes rather than the entirety of the play. With its grueling runtime and gravel-like textures, what Ghettoville ultimately reveals is the inner workings of a not-so-extravagant, kind of abysmal present.
The material cortex of Ghettoville is one of extreme poverty and lack of shape. The music itself is but a droning, lifeless insistence of life. Ghettoville is not post-anything; it is the domineering running down of all genres that are tied to the urban, post-colonial myth. Existing in the same world as Kanye, Tyler, The Creator and Death Grips while operating effervescently outside of it, Actress is too a black face pointing at the unquestioningly validated myth of the black context within urban society: post-post-colonial.
Within the first moment of the record, the listener is transported to a place that is at once immediately horrific and strangely familiar. Cascading a veil of isolation and thinly laced intimacy over hyper-specific genres (new jack swing, Minneapolis sound), Actress pulls hedonistic impulses and doomed circumstances through a John Cage-like exploration of precise spatial alignments and breaks in prepared skeletal structures. Ghettoville as a place is wholly representative of a future that is not so much degraded as wrecked with harsh realism.
The environment recalls Martine Sym’s recently published Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto. The manifesto is the meat and soul of Ghettoville as a record, working as an incidental companion to its sonic vision of an unrealized and mundane future. The notion of afrofuturism reached for points past its own engagement with its present: a grand rapture, a salvation and ascension to a better place, far outside the real conditions of life, gazing forward into a hopeful but certainly fantastic future. Ghettoville takes the fantasy of Afrofuturism and drives it into the ghetto, the ostracized land, with Actress gazing back at his own influences (funk, vogue-ing, blaxploitation films) an intense sadness. Stripping the materials bare, Actress exposes the situation of the future-present, the realization of decades worth of cultural forging. The listener, consequently, gets an anemic vision of the now: no space-age, no hopeful romance, no glossy-eyed mentions of money or sex, only the devastating reality of the poverty that grows like a fungus underneath the rock of imperial estrangement. There is a poignant section within Sym’s manifesto that resonates especially well with this outcome:
This dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a “master/slave” relationship.
While we are often Othered, we are not aliens.
Though our ancestors were mutilated, we are not mutants.
Post-black is a misnomer.
Post-colonialism is too.
The most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.
Ghettoville hangs on the edge of familiarity, begging the listener to grab on to the odd, tangible sample or familiar chorus, to hold it and to love it; quickly, though, it snatches the song away from the listener by distorting it, looping it. These moments are not unlike those of Daniel Lopatin’s Chuck Pearson project, or the entirety of the vaporwave genre, where the artists take moments of songs, contextual “sweet spots,” and loop them endlessly. With Ghettoville, however, rather than meditate on the moment of the sampled piece, glorifying it through repetition, Actress corrodes it over time. “Image,” for example takes a distinctly Prince-like moment and drops a low-tone harp line over it. As the dusty drums and metallic bassline fumble around, the moment locked in an infinite groove, the “sweet spot” is revealed and exploited, until the song is drowned in accelerated grain halfway through, dissolving into the by-then clustered harp line. This bleaching out, this granular aging of the record’s subjects, with contexts, histories and qualities overlapping each other and phasing out, recalls the sort of vague unraveling you hear in Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project or William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. For Voigt, an ambient immanence drags foghorn-like brass into a thick of sonic rubble, whereas Basinski displays the active symphony simply aging and withering, losing its girth.
Other theoretical elements of Actress’ work– signifiers of the “Black” context, miscellanous scenes and sounds– are driven into rubble as well. This, as Syms states in the manifesto, is the “[p]iling up [of] unexamined and hackneyed tropes, and setting them alight”, the “[g]azing upon [our] bonfire of the Stupidities.” The record’s sonic building blocks move within the space of the stage, interacting and permuting amongst themselves. Actress’ interview mentioned visions of drug deals and the dying homeless, or the music’s own indebtedness to its association with the appropriated scene. Ghettoville is a digressive and layered play, in this way, stacking factors and conditions and authoritative arcs in such a way that these discrete snippets build to the Brechtian “epic”, the grand realization of the parts’ hopeless and aleatoric orbits.
A friend of mine once half-jokingly stated that sexuality is reducible to a simple sonic vibration; romance falls in the same way. On “Street Corp,” a single, low register rumble of bass combines with some wine glass-like coos to form a barren scene, one recalling the gruffness of security camera footage that has been broken down to its essential parts. The signifier here exists only in the implied sense, as the listener can barely make out why these sounds remind them of walking through a craggy street late at night. The details of the scenes and their ultimate meaning are effectively meaningless; there is only the scene as it is. This is reality stark and bare: unabashed poverty and desperation crawling, grabbing at the ankles of the listener. With the bleached-out products of culture unfurling horrifically before our eyes, Actress lets us gawk at the prepared artifacts of nightmares about romances and flirtations with cultural commodities. In Ghettoville, the signifier is the collection of grains of salt, all of the little “recognizables” revealing themselves across time. Tracks like the strung-out “Don’t,” featuring a thinly stretched Rihanna sample, sets the listener in an environment of fear and poverty, utilizing the intimacy gained through tip-of-the-tongue phenomena.
When considering the three– Actress, Brecht and Syms– together, a pregnant phrase comes to mind: grounded utopianism. The phrase enlightens the breaking down of the Afrofuturist fantasy and its sidestepping of reality. If this is in fact Actress’ last record, then this is quite the gospel ending, solidifying the highly perceptible mythology that has worked its way around the project. Gentrified genres are unswervingly driven to their demise as though there was no religious chanting, i.e., fandom, hanging about them. Actress does not care about the culture contexts of vogue or hip-hop; he only wants their particles, their mechanisms and their slow and painful end. On “Our,” slipping into a deceitfully hopeful position as a xylophone melody plucks around pitched vocals, Actress speaks to what should be happening to genre and context-bound music. He says it with the vocal sample, which, in a Brechtian manner, reminds us to “break it down, slow it down, slow it down, down, down…”