SBTRKT – The Rat Road
It’s interesting to think that a whole generation is growing up on music SBTRKT has had some sort of impact on, potentially without knowing who he even is. Granted, the English producer is infamously elusive. Often hidden behind a mask, even his moniker alludes to his penchant for anonymity. Most active in the 2010’s blog era as a prolific remixer and artist, SBTRKT was a key player in the post-dubstep era with his hybridised mutants of UK dance styles and hip hop. This was the era that gave rise to movements like wonky and future bass, before culminating in the current UK bass n’ breaks revival. Some of the roots of UKG, jungle, and grime’s current mainstream visibility can be traced back to SBTRKT, who pioneered the underground-pop crossover formula that’s now commonplace on projects such as his seminal self-titled debut album and 2016’s Save Yourself.
In the seven years since that last record, there’s been a significant shift. No longer bound by anonymity, SBTRKT (real name Aaron Jerome) lifts the mask off not only himself, but his artistry. His latest album, The Rat Road, reveals an artist in a phase of self-discovery and hitherto self-indulgence. Unfolding like a journal of Jerome’s process of self-recognition, The Rat Road is a sprawling beast of an album, galloping through a host of genres and styles from track to track. Its first three, REMNANT, WAITING, and RAIN CRUSH, could almost be stitched into a single piece. REMNANT opens The Rat Road with piano and swirling strings, a nod toward Jerome’s compositional skills. This bleeds into the sticky and hazy dream pop of WAITING, while RAIN CRUSH’s thirty second interlude of lo-fi synth strings could easily function as the former’s proper conclusion.
These preface a track list that swerves from the alternative R&B of DON’T LET and the title track, to the garage of YOU, LOVE, to the wonky future bass of YOU BROKE MY HEART BUT IMMA FIX IT. The latter are styles where Jerome most clearly flourishes, though touches of genius are studded across the whole expanse of The Rat Road. Most intriguing are Jerome’s snapshots of tracks and interludes. Ranging from the spoken ominous, ambient grime of COPPA to the looped soul of GO TO GROUND, the collection of blink and you’ll miss it nuggets function less as linking devices and more as quick expressions of ideas. It’s like hearing Jerome brainstorm in real time.
The roster of guest artists on The Rat Road is exhaustive, and while this potentially muddies the album at times, it speaks toward Jerome’s brilliance as an eagle eyed creator. He’s always had a penchant for seeking out new talent, with artists like Jessie Ware and Caroline Polachek appearing on SBTRKT tracklists long before their peaks. On The Rat Road, Jerome finds a muse in LEILAH, who lends her voice to four of The Rat Road’s songs and provides the album with an accessible pop sensibility. One of these songs, LIMITLESS, sees Jerome reunite with longtime collaborator Sampha on a track that feels like the intersection of SBTRKT’s past and present. This also signals toward the album as a victory lap of sorts for Jerome, who both honours his history while ushering in a new phase of SBTRKT. At twenty two tracks in total, the album is easily about six too long (the aforementioned self-indulgence), but it’s more about chaos than it is order. This is a SBTRKT who no longer needs a mask; who reckons with and meets his own reflection with intention rather than trepidation. That said, the man behind the mask is no less complex, and The Rat Road is a portrait of an artist whose most brilliant parts are also his most confounding.
Listen to LIMITLESS from The Rat Road below.