The real star here isn’t the samples but Hinton’s production.
In the album trailer for Potential, his third album as The Range, James Hinton made his intent crystal-clear. Every sample on the album is from a YouTube video; the more obscure the better – pop covers, pipsqueak raps, few breaking a hundred views. “Who are these people?” the text on screen asks. “What are their stories?” The video is replete with shots of vibrant murals, kids dancing in Third World streets, gracious people talking about how they used to be nobody. The implication is that Potential is meant as a grand, humanistic gesture, saving these people from obscurity and giving them the platform they deserve.
But for the most part, Hinton isn’t trying to make stars out of these singers and rappers; this isn’t Journey plucking Arnel Pineda from the web. Rather, Hinton uses their voices like any other electronic producer – as decoration, to be chopped, treated and pitch-shifted. The record’s unquestioned highlights, and the ones that deliver best on the concept’s promise, are the ones where the vocalists are given the chance to shine. But mostly, their contributions are limited to a rhythmic hook, a coo in the background or a distant snatch of melody.
Hinton’s said about half of these productions were tailored to the samples, while the other half were beats he had lying around to which he later added samples. It’s easy to tell which are which. On the one hand, we have something like “Florida,” which flips a sample of a young woman singing Ariana Grande’s “You’ll Never Know” into a stargazing banger. Or “Superimpose,” which pairs cascading pianos with a howling soul singer for an exhilarating emotional release. On the other hand, we have tracks like “Five Four” and “Skeptical,” where grainy samples of rappers drift aimlessly over the beat. Hinton’s approach to sampling MCs is baffling; he mostly just seems to isolate part of a bar, chop it up, and loop it with no thought to how it fits in rhythmically.
The real star here isn’t the samples but Hinton’s production. His style has barely changed since 2013’s Nonfiction; the songs move a bit more fluidly, the drums are a bit more complex, but that’s about it. Yet Hinton’s style is so distinctive it’s hard to care. The foundation of his productions are bright, staccato sounds – pianos, harps, kotos, guitars – arranged into melodic yet hard-hitting beats that flirt with hip hop, house, and Baltimore club with no allegiance to one genre. It’s good all-purpose electronica, as great for getting high to as working out.
I wouldn’t mind in the least if Hinton kept making this kind of music for his entire career. Potential is every bit as enjoyable as Nonfiction, though it didn’t quite have the surprise factor the latter did. Throughout Potential, I found myself wishing Hinton would do more with these samples – to really bring them to the fore and exploit their emotional power. For being so central to the album’s concept, the samples’ role in the music is surprisingly minor, and it’s not hard to imagine the sampled singers listening to the final product and wondering, “That’s it?”