There’s a haze that hangs over Gavin Mays’ hip-hop. Sometimes it feels like an ode to surface noise, like the woozy phase of a beloved cassette that’s lived too long in the car, stretched and demagnetized but still familiar. Sometime it’s a less deliberate production choice, a matter of getting the samples and rap in place without too much fuss, using reverb to plaster over the joints. A lot sample-thick music has the effect of recontextualizing and commenting on the pop music that came before it. Cities Aviv is different. It feels sucked to the past, nearly part of it, like a recaptured broadcast.
Even on the closer here, “Don’t Ever Look Back,” where Mays’ production choices are pretty straightforward, his voice still sinks beneath the looping soul hiccup. Past suffocates the present. He’s hard to align with any particular trend. Weird stones get turned over, mostly from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s not stuff that’s been ignored by others, but rarely has anyone tried to fit together minimal wave whooshes with chintzy blazer funk. He makes the ominous play with the giddy. The sharpest sounds are shellacked with a cushy resin. In that way, he feels akin to Ariel Pink as much as anything in R&B. Cities Aviv is of this age, but not really in it.
The fidelity is kinda screwy, but the tracks on Come to Life sound better once they’re pushed past a certain volume. The hiss disappears. Turned up, “URL” could even have broad appeal. It’s not the lyric — it’s the plucky keyboard splats, which yank some female vocals into their undertow, Sheila E trampled by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Mays is in there too, shouting with positivity like it’s 1992. But his emcee work is nearly always overshadowed by his role as producer. His delivery doesn’t have identifiable tics, which might not be an entirely bad thing given the eccentricity of the other layers. No doubt Mays has got something to say — much of this album meditates on moving ahead when pushed aside. But he says it without ever getting in your face, or even near it.
Come to Life feels fragmentary in places, still more mixtape than debut album. It can be amazingly disorienting. “Fool” contorts a marimba riff like crazy, dropping in and out like a pest, forcing Mays (and everything else) out of the foreground. “Still” has stereo effects that could be completely arbitrary knob-twiddling. “Self 100” might be a manifesto for living, but the snares and reedy keys make such a wall of treble. It’s hard to say.
Is Cites Aviv capable of tightening up? The anchoring tracks here show that he could. Hope he never does.