Taken purely on musical terms, Brute is an excellent album. As a concept album, it’s a flop.
Context is tricky. Do the factors surrounding a work of art affect the quality of the art itself? Of course, you’re going to listen to Blackstar differently knowing Bowie made it on his deathbed, but the music itself remains the same. I’m a firm believer that the value of music is subjective, so I’d argue that if you enjoy an album more knowing the context, it’s a better album. By that same logic, if you enjoy an album less knowing the context, it’s worse. Sometimes it’s just easier to tune out context entirely. Is Kid A really about the “first human clone?” More importantly, would you rather listen to Kid A from that standpoint rather than just letting it speak for itself? Probably not.
Brute, the second album from Kuwaiti-American electronic producer Fatima Al Qadiri, is allegedly about “power, having a right, and having a say.” Samples throughout the record pertain to police brutality, and there’s a Teletubby in SWAT gear on the cover. But aside from the samples, there’s not much to flesh out these themes. It’s tempting to read the music as an evocation of a dystopian future, but Brute’s actually pretty, almost pastoral; it could just as easily be a concept album about spending a weekend on grandma’s farm.
I enjoyed Brute best when I forgot about the concept and just let the music transport me. The music is a sort of amalgam of purist Lex Luger-style trap and the MIDI grime of Fade to Mind, which released Qadiri’s very good 2012 EP Desert Strike. Drums are sparse, and the dominant sounds are tinny FL Studio horns, harp, digital flute and synthesized choir. It’s occasionally menacing, particularly during its hard-hitting first half, but not any more than a lot of ambient albums. While listening to Brute, I got mental images of meadows, streams, ocean villas, seaside caves – pretty much everything but protests and police violence.
There’s nothing terribly different from what Qadiri’s done before. Anyone attuned to her work will recognize a lot of these sounds. Closer “Power” features the same sprightly steel drums that made her Desert Strike cut “Hydra” and her Sicko Mobb collaboration “Big Homie” so entertaining. The Chinese strings of her last album Asiatisch show up here and there too. Ultimately, Brute feels a lot like Qadiri settling down; it’s the least surprising thing she’s done yet, and along with Desert Strike, it’s the platonic ideal of her sound.
Taken purely on musical terms, Brute is an excellent album. As a concept album, it’s a flop. Qadiri’s made effective political art before, including her last effort Asiatisch, a delightfully creepy exploration of cultural appropriation via uncanny-valley exotica. But Brute’s themes feel like unnecessary baggage weighing down an otherwise perfectly enjoyable electronic album. With this album, the less you know about it, the better.