Meta-Review: Metrical Enigmas In Jlin’s “Black Origami”

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Within the borders of electronic dance music as well as beyond it, Jlin’s Black Origami is one of the most rhythmically compelling recordings to come along in a while. Jlin (Jerilynn Patton) is a 20-year producer from Indiana whose music is  influenced by footwork, the kinetic dance and music style from Chicago. Footwork evolved from the fast rhythms of juke and ghetto house music, and is characterized by fast tempos (around 160bpm), heavily syncopated double-time feels (often in the hi hats), triplet-feel cross rhythms, and sub-bass lines. One of footwork’s key music innovators was the late producer DJ Rashad (1979-2014), whose music I have already written about. Rashad’s track “Feelin” is superb:

While Rashad’s “Feelin” has backbeats, most of Jlin’s tracks don’t. And though Black Origami has footwork’s fast syncopations there is something about it that sounds slippery, more open-ended. Why is this? Reviews offer us some clues.

Pitchfork (Andrew Nosnitsky) calls Black Origami “a gorgeous and overwhelming piece of musical architecture, an epic treatise on where rhythm comes from and where it can go.” The music is “all perpetually escalating polyrhythmic tension, a time-stopping barrage of drum rolls and disembodied angelic voices…making the case that rhythm is too infinite, too forceful to be reduced to mere utilitarian functions. It denies listeners the question of, ‘What do I do with this music?’ and forces them to react directly to what it does to them. It’s a pure exercise in sound-as-power, music that has no specific agenda beyond simply making itself felt.”

The Quietus (Ben Cardew) describes the music as “based around incredibly detailed rhythmical invention, where sounds seem to be employed for their metrical, rather than melodic, qualities and rhythms pile on top of rhythms in great shifting eddies of sound, creating beats within beats within beats.” Rhythmically speaking, “Jlin really throws the door open, using percussive sounds that range from marching bands to gongs to tablas” to create “an incredible piece of percussive programming that sounds like someone solving a Rubik’s cube in 5D stereo sound.” (The reviewer goes on to call the music “an astounding orgy of global polyrhythm” which I think is going too far.)

Dusted magazine (Joseph Burnett) describes Jlin’s music as “an adrenaline rush of frenetic djembé-like percussion” while synthesizers, effects and vocal samples “are pitched and distorted in such a way as to become staccato counterpoints to the drums and beat machines.” Resident Advisor (Angus Finlayson) hears “trilling hand drums and tom toms, cowbells and flickering shakers spill out in triplet cascades, punctuated by clipped vocal samples.” Another online source, PopMatters (Andrew Paschal) “focuses on a dueling interplay between organic, Djembe-like drumming and synthetic beats” calling Black Origami “a challenging and demanding, yet wholly edifying, work of rhythmic art.” Meanwhile, the LA Times (August Brown) describes Jlin’s drum programming as taking “snippets from taiko, Bollywood, electronic clangs and soulful Chicago house. It’s intricate and punishing, industrial and artful.” Spin (Britt Julious) notes “unusual time signatures and rapid percussive syncopation” as the music “melds shimmery, New Age wind chimes with ramped up drumline percussion and indecipherable vocal samples.”

Finally, NPR (Piotr Orlov) describes Black Origami as accessing and developing “a rhythmic language informed by both avant-garde street culture and historical tradition.” Jlin’s music is “a brilliant example of contemporary beat programming” that hopes to push beyond simplistic club tropes…The rolls and other tightly wound cornucopia of acoustic and digital percussion remain at its center. Is it West African percussion or are they gnawa rhythms? Is it a military drum corps or an HBCU marching band being referenced?…Is it music for dancing, for listening, or for ritual? In this Jerilynn Patton turns out to be the most Steve Reich-ian of all the electronic producers…”

To me though, the key yet mostly overlooked characteristic of the music on Black Origami is its meter: eleven of the recording’s twelve tracks have a 6/8 or 12/8 metrical feel. In these compound meters, each main pulse in the music is divided and felt as three equal smaller units (e.g. for 12/8 meter: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12). Compound meters feel very different from simple meters such as 4/4, popular music’s reigning and unflappable default meter. In having a 6-beat/12-beat feel, Jlin’s music stays slippery and open-ended, sounding more like West African drumming than electronic dance music. Like a spider web, the compound meters on Black Origami catch us in the multiple rhythmic textures and perspectives spun within them. This makes the music perceptually complicated, exciting, and always one step ahead of where you think it will go next.

Here is my favorite Jlin track, “Enigma”:

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