In collaborations with Kanye West and The Weeknd, Daft Punk becomes a shorthand for a certain kind of credibility. But two decades ago, they were still dance music wunderkinds.
In the 20 years since their debut album, French house duo Daft Punk have long since transcended the micro-genre that birthed them. In their instantly recognizable robot helmets, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have become musical icons par excellence, representing a singular vision with their merging of sounds and influences. They’re the perfect kind of pop stars, ones who can walk into any grocery store in the world and not get noticed, but still be seen as literal superheroes the moment they don their masks.
In collaborations with Kanye West and The Weeknd, Daft Punk becomes a shorthand for a certain kind of credibility. But two decades ago, they were still dance music wunderkinds. Homework, their first full length release, still stands tall as an instant classic. But giving it a spin in 2017 is a strange pastime. To say it “holds up” would be an understatement. There’s nothing here that feels outdated or ill advised. You can throw it on at any function and still get asses shaking and hips jerking. Homework just stands in such stark contrast to the projects they’ve released since.
Outside of middling outlier Human After All, Daft Punk’s other two watershed projects are exemplified by their cohesion. They make albums that feel like albums, intricate bodies of work that are best consumed whole. Homework wasn’t conceived with that same unity of vision, instead organized by unity of time and place. Most of these tracks were recorded quick and dirty in the noble, youthful pursuit of making dope shit. There was no long form LP planning at play here, just the messy, passionate mélange of banging out potential hot singles. This is why Homework’s best moments all stand on their own.
After opening track “Daftendirekt” and it’s connective, analog nostalgia interlude “WDPK 83.7 FM,” the entire A Side is a murderer’s row of incendiary slices of instantly addictive dance music. “Revolution 909” is a defiant party track so blunt in its repetition as to transform the very act of reverie into its own kind of cudgel. Here, the robots make a song so propulsive and forceful it makes dancing feel like protest. That goes right into “Da Funk,” Daft Punk’s riotous, otherworldly paean to G-Funk, with its unrelenting thunder-thud kick drum and serrated riff slashing at your ear drums. It’s perhaps the most important track on the album, prophesying a career of flipping off-kilter influences into strange new creations. But it’s still not quite the best.
That would be “Around The World,” the deceptively simple single built around that elastic robotic voice contorting the track’s title into an exponentially denser linguistic exercise. It’s like hearing an alien cover Chic at karaoke while learning every Earth tongue all at once. You know when you highlight a chunk of text and scroll through every font permutation available in your word processor and stop for a moment to chuckle at wingdings? This is that but with a dope bass line and a bubbly feeling that’s impossible to shake. It’s no wonder the song was such a smash and that it’s endured all these years; it’s a pure distillation of what makes Daft Punk so fun.
The only thing holding Homework back from truly unassailable greatness is its padded runtime. For every inarguable piece of pop perfection there’s an equally acceptable track that pumps its brakes right at being merely good. “Teachers” presages the epic hero worship of Random Access Memories’s “Giorgio by Moroder” by turning a book report bibliography of the duo’s inspirations into electronic poetry. Both “Rock’n Roll” and “Rollin’ and Scratchin’” take forceful repetition to jagged, grating heights, but serve as an angular counterpoint to some of the smoother cuts like “Phoenix” and “Fresh.” These songs are solid and worthy, but standing alongside the album’s greater triumphs, they feel like underachievers.
Homework’s promotional music video clips, helmed by directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, come together better as a coherent body of work than all the songs that inspired those visuals. As its own project, it’s an album that succeeds thanks to the unbridled passion and verve of its creators and the sunspot intensity of their best cuts. Over time, Daft Punk would come to craft full length albums with more obsessive attention to detail and a stronger appreciation for themes and concepts. But here, they made their mark and stamped their claim for a future spot in the cultural pantheon. They did so on the shoulders of a varied cast of influences, paying respectful homage to those that came before while still establishing themselves as the next big thing.