At this point, hating Skrillex is so common that it’s no longer really possible to gain any cultural cred by expressing one’s disapproval for the musician. If anything, engaging in vocal hatred just establishes you as yet another member of three distinct groups. You might be part of the group of Skrillex disparagers made up of those who haven’t dipped any more than their toe into the world of electronic music. These people typically take great joy in disparaging the music Sonny Moore makes, regardless of their understanding of the dubstep scene, finding common ground with other music fans through a mutual detestation of the tuneless garbage they usually hear spewing from a pair of laptop speakers.
Or you might join the (arguably more legitimate) group consisting of those who have been listening to dubstep since it coagulated sometime in the early aughts in Croydon, when it was still exclusively a combination of cavernous Jamaican dub and ravey 2-step garage. This group despises Skrillex for delegitimizing the genre of music they listen to, and they resent having to add the sanctimonious qualifier “real” to the style’s name in order to separate their music from that of the Molly-popping hooligans people associate with dubstep.
Then, there’s the third group (of which I used to be a more vocal member), who still loves the specific style of dubstep (i.e. “brostep”) that exploded upon the release of Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites They’re usually forced to distance themselves from the absurd amount of backlash that inevitably comes when someone inquires into their music taste (“I like dubstep.” “Oh…you mean, like…Skrillex dubstep?” “No, no! That stuff sucks! Skrillex is so bad!”). At this point in my musical maturation, I’m still a part of one of this group’s offshoots, the listeners who have become disillusioned with Moore’s more recent output.
We became interested in electronic music through Skrillex and his ilk, headbanging along to “Kyoto” because finally, we’d found something to counteract the cheesy pop and wimpy indie-rock which saturated our musical world at the time. Through him, we were pointed to the “good stuff,” which initially included more brostep and eventually expanded to the kinds of music one might call “critically acclaimed,” like chest-rattling dubstep; soulful, desperate house; and mechanistic, merciless drum & bass.
We would eventually fall out of love with Skrillex, especially upon the release of his debut album Recess around this time last year, a catastrophe of poorly-conceived composition and grating, awful sonic structure. We’d moved forward (or so we thought), and he’d stayed where he was. Over time, we found even more little things to hate about him (“He’s DJing with Beats headphones?! Beats?! What in the world is he doing?”) as we made up for lost time among our friends, who had been laughing at our stubborn love for the producer for years. Eventually, we joined the ranks of the Skrillex-haters ourselves. Sick of fighting for a cause we no longer believed in, we finally abandoned it for good.
Of course, Sonny Moore has still been going strong. Now one of the richest DJs in the world, he’s put out release after release since blowing up back in 2010. Not only does he have dozens of original songs as well as several remixes to his name at this point, he’s also a prolific collaborator. He made waves with electro superstar Boys Noize a few years ago as Dog Blood, despite only releasing 5 original songs. Before this week, he generated a sizeable amount of hype performing with trap megastar and Twitter provocateur Diplo as Jack Ü, with a total of one officially-released song under the duo’s belt. To some, the man’s continued popularity is almost infuriating—despite almost all of Skrillex’s opponents trying to shout him down through ultimately pointless ridicule, he still manages jaw-dropping success in terms of sales and fans.
The sudden release of Jack Ü’s debut album, Skrillex and Diplo present Jack Ü, seems to have solidified critics’ Skrillex hatred. The album was announced about six hours before its release at midnight on Thursday, February 26. Immediately after its announcement, Skrillex and Diplo began broadcasting a 24-hour concert/party on popular streaming service Twitch, featuring EDM luminaries such as Dillon Francis and Zedd. The party was shut down about 18 hours in by police, most likely because the crush of people trying to get into the building was dangerously large. The general sentiment seems to be that the album release represents pretty much everything wrong with the duo: terrible music coming from the speakers, an audience on their phones for nearly the entire night, and a sort of vague, overarching disrespect for the music in favor of the non-musical elements inherent in listening to Skrillex or Diplo.
Adding to the massive amounts of anti-hype surrounding Jack Ü is the idea that it’s fitting that someone like Skrillex should collaborate with someone like Diplo. The latter producer (née Wes Pentz) iss the quintessential example of a “sellout”: despite a phenomenal instrumental hip-hop album in Florida and an equally excellent collaborative mixtape with a pre-”Paper Planes” M.I.A. in Piracy Funds Terrorism, everything he’s done since then has come under fire as being far too base, appealing to the lowest common denominator. On top of that (as well as his striking net worth), his social media persona isn’t exactly the easiest to deal with. Following Diplo on Twitter is a little like drinking from a fire hose, both in that he sends out an unstoppable deluge of tweets and that some of those tweets aren’t exactly the cleanest (see his reprehensible response to an artist accusing him of stealing her GIF and subsequent lack of meaningful apology). Of course, all publicity is good publicity, especially when you’ve built up such a reputation for being inflammatory that almost nothing you say will reflect harmfully on you. His media savvy (if you can call it that) makes Jack Ü seem a match made in hell, ready to wreak havoc upon unsuspecting listeners.
Two days after its release, it’s clear that the album itself won’t mollify most of Jack Ü’s detractors. Skrillex and Diplo present Jack Ü consists of banger after banger, with all the associated negative connotations therein. Many listeners (myself included) feared this would happen after listening to lead single “Take Ü There” for the first time. The song exemplifies almost everything wrong with the trap explosion of 2012: melodic introduction leading into a jarring, poorly-tuned horn-wobble amalgam, incredibly simplistic bassy 808 kick drums with no melodic progression, even an airhorn or two thrown into the mix. The rest of the album is more of the same. The atrociously-titled “Jungle Bae,” counterintuitively, doesn’t utilize any jungle elements whatsoever, aside from Bunji Garlin’s ragga vocals – no chopped-and-screwed breakbeat samples, no militaristic, pitch-black sound design. It instead opts for an uncomfortably nasally vocal-esque sample over an oddly-syncopated, disorienting series of kicks and claps. Similarly, “Holla Out,” admittedly far and away the worst song on the album, is an obnoxious fusion of trap and brostep, tuneless upper-register distortion and shotgun samples creating an unholy backdrop to heavily-AutoTuned reggae-esque vocals.
And yet I just can’t find it in me to dislike the album. Common sense and the current cultural narrative in which I participate are screaming at me to trash this album with all my might, but I’m just not able to do it. I’m not really sure why, to be honest. It might be because, inexplicably, the album improves drastically with each subsequent listen. “Take Ü There,” again, was a good indicator of this—the abrupt switch from euphoric chorus to dirty, off-time trap at the drop somehow began to make sense, and I learned to lose myself within the embrace of Kiesza’s pitched-up vocal samples. Almost surprisingly, Skrillex and Diplo present Jack Ü follows the path of “Take Ü There.” 2 Chainz’s live-wire verses on the bona-fide hip-hop slammer “Febreze” augment the dirty electro wobbles and high-pitched synth sounds, creating something incomprehensibly excellent. Even “Where Are Ü Now,” a song featuring the inimitable Justin Bieber on vocals, is good—its roiling dubstep framework and triplet synth plucks provide a wonderful conclusion to the album’s roller-coaster ride, serenely sliding to a stop.
The album’s smarmy self-awareness provides the best explanation I can find for its otherwise inexplicable success. The introductory track is something you might find on a fifteen-year-old’s Voice Memos app: someone who sounds like Diplo recites a pitch for Jack Ü, featuring such comedy gold as “Don’t do drugs…just shoot a little Jack Ü up your butt!” The second half of the track removes the listener a level by recording people whom I assume to be Skrillex and Diplo talking about what they’ll do with the newly-recorded monologue (“I’m just gonna cut something together and, like, slow it down…”). To be sure, this is an odd moment, and the weirdness of Diplo’s signature immature humor in conjunction with something slightly more meta suggests that Skrillex and Diplo aren’t worried about the album’s overarching sound or purity or fidelity to its musical heritage.
The attitude showcased in the introduction informs the rest of Skrillex and Diplo present Jack Ü, shaping the release’s harmonically-uncaring synth sounds and straight-banger mentality. Skrillex and Diplo are both fully aware of the music community’s unbridled hatred for them and everything they stand for, and it’s clear that they don’t really care. They’ll keep making the kind of music they love whether the world at large likes it or not. They have the artistic license to do that, and no one can take that away.
And, really, I think that attitude is the reason the album appeals to me so much. On some level, I’m sick of having to justify everything I listen to in terms of not only arbitrary good/bad distinctions but also its position within the wider cultural landscape. Jack Ü appeals to the desire to just give up trying to critically analyze things and have a good time. But I don’t want to have to write this album off as a “guilty pleasure,” one that doesn’t have any bearing on the rest of my music taste. After my years of falling in and out of love with Sonny Moore, I just want to enjoy something he releases without anyone asking me incredulously, “You listen to Skrillex!?!” More than anything, especially in this hypercompetitive Princeton environment in which I’ll live for the next seven semesters, I want to be able to embody the attitude exemplified in Skrillex and Diplo present Jack Ü. Part of the reason Skrillex and Diplo have been so successful is because they’re perpetually positive: no matter what kind of negative feedback they receive, they’re always on the upswing. Why shouldn’t I be able to share that attitude?