Steve Aoki – Wonderland

Steve Hiroyuki Aoki (a.k.a. ‘Kid Millionaire’) is an interesting character, and not just because of his Dad, or the fact that none of his musical guests have reached a consensus on how to pronounce his last name. Hang around long enough and you’re bound to hear his mangled surname circulating in dance-music crowds, whether for his own production and DJ work, or the fact that he founded Dim Mak records (giving us everyone from Battles to MSTRKRFT). Steve Aoki’s been around: he’s released tons of remixes and been featured on The Bloody Beetroots tracks and helped birth Zuper Blahq – which is why it’s sort of mystifying to find that, at 33 proud years of age, he’s finally releasing his debut album.

There are a few natural advantages that come with waiting several years to release your first LP: Aoki’s audience is already out there, he’s already won DJ awards, and he’s gone and made a whole pack of celebrity friends in the process. Many of those friends make appearances on Wonderland, sometimes providing the personality and dramatic flair that Aoki’s productions deserve (and subsist upon), and sometimes just appearing. Wonderland is, mostly, an electro-house album with a penchant for pop hooks – I’ve already mentioned that this sort of music has a time and a place – and so far as it hopes to get people all excited and sock-hopping after a few drinks, it succeeds. That being said, at 100% guest-act capacity, Wonderland isn’t really about Aoki anyways: it’s about his colleagues, and the degree to which his production can support, supersede, or salvage their performances. Ultimately, a great deal of your enjoyment here is going to be in direct correlation with your appreciation for tightly-produced dance anthems and your corresponding ability to ignore shaky lyricism, the odd generic performance, and Rivers Cuomo’s attempts to drop a rhyme over rave beats. Yeah.

That said, let’s dig in: Wonderland has the inglorious honour of opening to Rivers Cuomo rapping. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer is going to bless you with the whitest rap verse of all time (finally), and yes it’s groan-worthy. Thankfully, Aoki has the good sense to back Rivers up with some dirty rave synths, disco strings and a thumping house bass, the combined might of which save “Earthquakey People” from b-side status (though oddly not from a late-album sequel). Pay attention to that last bit, because it’s going to come up later: Aoki saves the track. As in, Rivers Cuomo is committed to eye-rolling verses like “Earthquakey people, ready to shake with the power of sound” (though his voice fits the tune), and somewhere Aoki thought to himself “Oh geez, I’d better drop stomping synths under this, or people are going to laugh” – and so he did, and as we’ll see, this more or less becomes Wonderland’s guiding philosophy. “Ladi Dadi” follows and recalls Doug E. Fresh in name, but results in more of a watered-down “LaLa” – complete with a voice like Ashlee Simpson’s – over sparkling dubstep-light that occasionally breaks into house. It’s passable and generic and it’s going to go over well in clubs because it’s fun and fast and features a dubstep drop, but there’s nothing ambitious going on when Wynter squeals “A little smokie-smoke/don’t mean a dirty joke”. “Dangerous” stumbles into third, featuring an unusually swear-y Will.i.am – sorry, that’s Zuper Blahq – dropping the lyrical gem, “I’m a bad motherfucker/I smash up the party like a bad motherfucker” over flaring organs straight out of “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff”. Again the production is infectious (vocals and all), but the lyricism is distractingly stupid, and for some might entirely break the track (should we just expect this from B.E.P. alumni now?), and Aoki again finds himself playing lifeguard, buoying a dull performance with ten years of solid DJ experience. The rest is largely the same: “Come With Me” is Polina playing the generic club-anthem card over heady bouncing synths that work well enough (and happily reminded me of Sonic when I first heard them). Again, its lyrics are very much your standard ‘oh look it is night be with me I want you’ fare, and are the sort of thing that’s utterly inoffensive in a club, but make a difficult case for home ownership beyond the odd late-night spin. Lil’ Jon and Chiddy Bang then show up to remind us that women are hot over some heavy percussion that (again) dips into house – but never anything overly engaging – and effectively crystallize Wonderland’s key weakness: despite his clearly valiant work to the contrary, Aoki’s celebrity guests are left to define Wonderland, and they aren’t an altogether safe bet.

Despite all the Blaqstarr and Angger Dimas and The Exploited (!!!) cameos going on, Wonderland passes by in a blur, albeit one that would definitely improve with the application of alcohol. It’s a thirteen track album, and you aren’t going to be able to recall (or name) every track by the end, but that isn’t to say there aren’t hills and valleys: when Wonderland hits, it hits very nicely. “Livin’ My Love”, complete with perfectly idiosyncratic verses by LMFAO and NERVO, excels with its turbo-charged pop bounce and the sheer energy of its participants (and is likely Aoki’s finest production here). “Cudi the Kid” sneaks up like a Cudi track ought to (but rarely do on his own albums), drifting through Aoki’s house-synth haze and Cudi’s immaculately autotuned drawl, with Travis Barker doing his damndest to imitate a drum-machine in the background. Sure there’s a weird little dubstep-style drop (of which there are many on Wonderland), and the lyrics are nothing groundbreaking, but again it’s the sound of three people doing what they like best, and working in concert to pull it off with heart. Heck, despite all of my heckling I even have a favourite track from Wonderland, and one I’ll be preserving for later: “Ooh” featuring Jacksonville newcomer Rob Roy. Swaggering out the gate with his best André 3000 impression in tow, he sells “Ooh” on charisma alone. He’s also the only artist here that manages to push Aoki into a background role, which he happily inhabits with dubstep wubs and electric, accenting strings. It’s a strange track, sold largely on the timbre of Roy’s voice, but he fits so nicely between the now-requisite dubstep-ery that’s it’s hard to complain. Unlike so many of the all-stars on Wonderland, Rob Roy’s a (relative) newbie and seems genuinely excited to be on deck; if Wonderland gets a single, this better be it. His enthusiasm is catching, and points out exactly what Wonderland needed: more energetic artists riding the crest of their exposure (like Aoki himself).

Wonderland’s a difficult one to assess. On the one hand, these tracks are perfectly handy for the club, and given the right pair of headphones (or monitors) they’ll all thump pretty well (aside from astounding punk-oddity “The Kids Will Have Their Say”). They’re fun tracks and Steve Aoki knows what he’s doing on the production end of things, despite a bit of over-reliance on the quickly-drying ‘brostep’ effects. On the other hand, Aoki spends so much of Wonderland apparently floating his guest-artists’ dime-a-dozen performances that it’s difficult not to be distracted by the lack of surprises, especially as a home-listener that doesn’t review dance albums en scène (that is, drunk/dancing at a club). Wonderland is always capable, occasionally quite fun, and generally hampered by its lack of lyrical and musical knockouts. I have faith in Steve Aoki’s production abilities, I really do – we might just want to tell a few of Kid Millionaire’s millionaire friends to stay home next time.

6.5

Reviewed right here, January 2012

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