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Toro y Moi continues to explore new ground with hip-hop-influenced Samantha

Genre Hopping

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When Chaz Bundick, a.k.a. Toro y Moi, dropped the surprise mixtape Samantha a few weeks ago, it seemingly presented yet another polar shift in his musical direction. You see, Bundick had already released a critically acclaimed album this year that sounded nothing like Samantha. Released just five months prior, What For? saw the 28-year-old musical polymath and South Carolina native embrace the guitar-centric music of his youth, pairing the kind of accessible post-punk tunes he crafted in bands like Taxi Chaps and Heist & the Accomplice with a love of Todd Rundgren, Big Star, and Weezer, only to be unified by the funky danceability that has been the hallmark of every official Toro release.

In stark contrast, Samantha is a murky hip-hop production, with nary an "organic" instrument in sight and a more overt emphasis on sound and vibe rather than song. Indie rappers like Kool AD, Rome Fortune, and Nosaj Thing drop in for a few guest spots, and Bundick himself tries his hand at some Drake-esque flows, but mostly this is the closest thing to Toro's chill wave debut, 2010's Causers of This, that he has released in years. The reality, though, is that these two disparate musical paths have always run concurrently in Bundick's head.

"I don't really try to separate them that much," he admits. "I just try to stay interested in music all the time. My whole purpose is just to have fun."

For those paying attention, there's always been a ping-pong quality to Bundick's output. After Causers of This, a cerebral bedroom-pop record built on samples and processed drum loops, Toro went with all-live instrumentation for his '70s-funk and R&B-inspired 2011 follow-up Underneath the Pines, only to slant back towards his role as a producer with 2013's Anything in Return. And throughout everything, Bundick has proven to be an adept remixer and DJ, often turning to his side project Les Sins to get out his more house-oriented impulses.

What seems new about Samantha, then, is really that it's the most directly hip-hop indebted recording he's ever released.

While he refers to the collection, which includes songs recorded years ago, as "just gathering leftover tracks and unfinished stuff," Bundick also notes that this type of music has been a long-held interest for him. "Some hip-hop artists I can relate to. They are just trying to get to the top," he points out, not unlike his own gradual climb upwards in the world of indie rock.

That Bundick tends to be as self-effacing as most rappers tend to be self-aggrandizing makes this an odd point, but it fits with the fact that hip-hop music speaks explicitly to something that has always been implicit in indie-rock currency. "When you get to a certain level of success, you have to keep that energy going," Bundick says. "I've always gotten frustrated when a band gets to a certain level of success and then the music stops being good."

The point of a mixtape like Samantha, then, becomes a way of maintaining creative juices as well as a level of sanity when it comes to the public pressures that get exerted on an established entity like Toro y Moi. "I'm just trying to find a balance between handling that kind of attention and just being me," he says.

And for all of What For?'s rock affectations and turn towards the guitar-centered approach of his youth, the LP also speaks to Bundick's desire to continue to grow. In place of the sonic experimentation and expansiveness that often carried the weaker compositions on past records, the record instead presented a concise set of melodies and lyrics that, while elliptical, still seemed to tackle more specific ideas and situations than in the past.

"Empty Nesters," the lead single, is a good example of this. Featuring a tasty guitar riff and an ebullient melody, it also directs Bundick's trademark themes of uncertainty and nostalgia toward a particular subject matter, reflecting on high school dreams and the position of his empty-nest parents. While he just touches on these details, it's still a big step forward for an artist mostly known for simple questioning and vague longing.

"I definitely made an effort to focus more on the lyrics and say things that resonated a bit more," Bundick says. "I was trying not to repeat myself and talk more about [specific] settings and situations."

He also says that, despite this current tour coming on the heels of Samantha, that he and his band were still very much supporting What For? and rocking out rather than delving into the hip-hop sounds of the mixtape. "It was really just for fun," he says. "I had an idea that these tracks seemed like they kind of fit together."

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