Nowhere in the 2012 best-of round-ups could you have found even the mildest suggestion that the universal acclaim heaped upon Channel Orange may have been just a little bit for the backstory as for the music. I liked it, although not as much as some people, and possibly not even as much as I liked 2011's Nostalgia, Ultra. In any event, it was frustrating for me personally to observe the way that black pop music which was at least as interesting, if not more so, than Frank (or the equally effusively-praised Abel Tesfaye p/k/a The Weeknd) was being largely ignored amidst an apparent rush amongst commentators eager to assert their impeccable liberal credentials by endorsing a black r&b singer who might or might not be gay. Speaking of which, you'd think it might have occurred to a few more people to ask Rahsaan Patterson what he thought of all this?
I have my suspicions that the concept for Cocaine 80s may have arisen from, of all things, No ID's production gig on ex-Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft's most recent solo album United Nations of Sound, a couple of years back. As hook-ups go, it wasn't an obvious one; the man Kanye West has described as a mentor, responsible for a bunch of the most notable hip-hop tunes of the last two decades, and rock's leading Cosmic Woolyback. Despite the album being Ashcroft's least successful to date, it does seem to have had the side benefit of encouraging No ID's more experimental instincts. Certainly, both projects appear to involve a number of the same musicians, with guitarist Steve Wyreman's contribution being particularly outstanding. Otherwise it's multi-platinum singer-songwriter James Fauntleroy doing the singing and songwriting instead of Mad Richard, with vocal support from Makeba Riddick and, on their latest The Flower Of Life, the excellent Jhene Aiko. It's been spun as a Common project in some quarters, but it really isn't. If anything, Com seems unusually content just to play his position here (as does Nas on Chainglow), and his contributions are probably the most vital he's made to anything in quite some time.
It seems to me that the original five-word pitch might have been indie-rock/r&b/rap fusion, which admittedly sounds horrifying on paper. Yet, instead of the usual Mr. Potatohead shit you often get with things of this nature, everything's actually in the right proportion for a change. The writing's imaginative and a bit unpredictable, instead of the tedious four-chord looping Coldplay knock-offs that many rap/r&b acts fall into when they want to invoke a stadium rock vibe. Even the standard lyrical tropes sound fresher simply for being placed in a different musical context. I've actually been wanting someone to do something like this for a few years now - at least since Lewis Taylor went off the grid.
Cocaine 80s debuted with zero fuss whatsoever somewhere around June 2011 with The Pursuit EP, thus making them roughly contemporaneous to Frank Ocean's emergence with Nostalgia, Ultra, give or take a few months. Three EPs and plenty of accumulated word-of-mouth later, there's a little more weight lent to my belief that they're representative of how black artists have begun to draw upon a much broader palette than they might perhaps have done a decade ago. Back in the early 00s, performers like Anthony Hamilton appeared to be the ones swimming against the tide and the prevailing trends, even if they were still essentially traditionalists. Now there's suddenly more artists coming from a loosely similar angle, where the song is still central, but who along the way are drawing in strands from Radiohead, Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, Cocteau Twins, Elliott Smith and all kinds of strange textural shit that people wouldn't normally expect to hear referenced in black pop. And it works.
You can download all four EPs here, and you should.