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on November 13, 2015, 12:01am

When Jordy Asher (aka Boots) was plucked from obscurity (aka the New York nightclub where he worked as a bartender and sometime DJ) and signed to Roc Nation about two and a half years ago, his sound was already polished and well-defined. He went on to leave an indelible fingerprint on Beyonce’s self-titled fifth studio album, creating a kind of latter-day music industry fairy tale narrative in the process: Work hard, and if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, the queen might see your true worth, pull you up onto her pedestal, and make all your rags-to-riches dreams come true.

Asher’s auspicious debut, however, puts him in the unique position of having to re-establish himself as a solo artist outside of his association with his powerful friends. It’s fair to say that there are probably many, many more people who know the spooky beat behind Beyonce’s “Haunted” then there are obsessives who have read the liner notes and recognize Asher by name. Nevertheless, his music has already made it out into the world in a way that most aspiring producers could only dream of.

(Read: Boots Against the World)

Part of the problem lies in the fact that Asher, while competent in his delivery, isn’t a naturally excellent vocalist. On AQUARIA‘s title track, it’s Angel Deradoorian’s silky, supple voice that carries the song through its second half, as she sings, “Don’t cross the river with an alligator underneath your knees,” an ominous lyric in an ominous song filled with disjointed imagery about snakes, hearses, holy water, and gamma rays. Asher fares somewhat better on “Only”, his wordless falsetto oohs rising above the funereal piano and prison march beat. “You are the only one alive/ That is the only thing I know,” he tells us, creating a suffocating and uncomfortable world that feels like being inside a coffin — which is probably exactly what he was going for. Asher has said that the second half of AQUARIA is about creating your own world where you are in control, but the world that Asher himself has created is a dangerous and unpredictable one.

Asher mentioned in an interview with NPR that there was a year in his life when he witnessed the deaths of three strangers in freak accidents right in front of his eyes, and “Dead Come Running” plays like a distillation of those experiences. “Dead coming running like a wolf with a meat purse,” he growls, conveying a kind of comfort with the inevitability of death that is, frankly, as unsettling as anything else on AQUARIA. 

While AQUARIA is uniquely Asher’s and probably unlike anything else you’ll hear this year — a mix of heavy, grinding industrial beats and quick, nimble lyrics that whiz by like the view of the landscape from a train window — the truth buried at the bottom of the bass drop is that Asher himself isn’t yet magnetic enough to make his own material shine. Does he have an original and sometimes unparalleled vision for what contemporary pop music can be? Absolutely, and that’s what has made him such a boon to other artists. Is AQUARIA a feat of talent and creativity? Indisputably, yes. But it also shares many characteristics with pop music while remaining oddly, disconcertingly joyless, and after it ends, that is the hardest part to shake.

Essential Tracks: “AQUARIA”, “Only”, and “Dead Come Running”