On his first full-length album, Garfield Heights, Ohio-based instrumental hip-hop producer Nelson Brodhead–aka (leave) Nelson B–fashioned something like a photomosaic. 2.0: Phantom came out back in January, and it compiled samples from Brodhead’s labelmates on Lonely Ghost Records, rearranging them until they made an original, unified picture. Take a step back, and you can see a hazy, overarching image of sober melancholy; as Brodhead explained in a recent interview with The All Scene Eye Podcast, the recording coincided with a time of hard personal work in therapy.
The follow-up, 3.0: Saints, shoots with a wider lens. Brodhead draws from a greater range of samples without a strong unifying concept, which is not to say it’s a lesser project. What Saints lacks in cohesiveness, it makes up for in the clarity of its individual tracks. To carry on the photography metaphor, it’s more like a series of Instagram stories; rather than manipulating a pattern of images into one reflective whole, Brodhead drops hard-hitting snippets of life in media res.
It’s also a bit more upbeat, with the possible exception of the opener, “No Respiration.” The title is another way of saying “I Can’t Breathe,” and after a hand clapped, hype-up intro, Brodhead starts deploying vocal samples that comment on the ongoing crisis of police violence against Black Americans. “Another tragedy,” says one in a chopped up loop like a broken record. “Please let me go,” says another, over and over. It’s framed by a catchy, twinkling lead and a driving rhythm you could just groove to without thinking, if not for the words and the sirens. That makes for a smart juxtaposition, in the grand tradition of socially-conscious party music, and it also captures something very unique to the zeitgeist, which is to say the continuing onslaught of everyday American horror, where killings and uprisings are part and parcel of daily life.
That makes “No Respiration” the creative crown jewel of the collection, but the rest of the tracks also see Brodhead getting a lot of mileage out of the snappier production. The standouts are the more direct sample flips in the pattern of Phantom–not because of anything inherent to the original songs, but because they each act as a playground for Brodhead’s genre-bending imagination. Saints has two, each one drawing on a different song by Akron indie rock band Houses & Hotels. “The Final Fedora” mashes up acoustic guitar clips and rapid-fire drum machine hi-hats (a match made in heaven). “Tommy Is Shinji” has a super-tasty bass line and stabs of grungy electric guitar. The beats are by far Brodhead’s most lively and tactile yet, bringing some new presence to his trademark trippy style.
Also like Instagram stories, what really makes these moments pop is the window they give into the producer’s mind. This is still contemplative, ambient instrumental hip-hop you can set, forget, and go about your day (in particular “Miss Tacket” and “Donna K”) but you get more and brighter flashes of Brodhead’s personality along the way, even in voices other than his own.
The last track on the project is called “Irukashō イルカショー,” Japanese for “dolphin show”–an inside reference I know only because of our conversation on the podcast. It cuts out, suddenly and comically, with a sampled “bitch” echoing to infinity. As someone who mostly writes about singer/songwriters, I’m always fascinated by how much you can accomplish without lyrics, whether it’s humor, social commentary, or deep feeling. Nelson B knows how to push all those buttons–though I assume they aren’t labeled that way on his MPC Live.