ZHU is destined to be more than just the Bansky of electronic music.
West Coast producer ZHU has often been described as mysterious throughout his meteoric rise to EDM prominence. While his real name, Steven Zhu, and some backstory trickled out after “Faded” was nominated for a Grammy, even now the Chinese-American artist still seems to prefer anonymity. Unfortunately, that cuts both ways, and there isn’t much to distinguish his new albumGenerationwhy, a collection of mediocre-to-decent house cuts.
The album gains strength in its second half as ZHU’s skittering production finds a foothold that matches his carefully honed persona. The atmospheric and sprawling “Money” features a dynamite sax solo that comes out of nowhere. While the spoken word on “Good Life” is pretentious, the variety is welcome as most of the album’s vocals are thin falsetto crooning.
The title track is bouncy and infectious despite vague lyrical; aphorisms like, ”We are the people of this generation.” Still, the drums are crisp, the chords are plucky and it’s the rare song with a whistle on the hook that actually works. The massive chords that kick in as the track ends are stirring and suggest that perhaps ZHU should have aimed higher, shooting for arena-sized EDM.
“Working For It” is a curious mix of ZHU’s signature style with something that sounds like mid-‘00s Nelly posse, but it turns out to be a pretty good time. Skrillex and dark R&B duo THEY. pop up and force ZHU to go in a different direction. The track throws a little of everything at the wall, and as it moves along a lot of it sticks. Going forward, it would be worthwhile for the producer to consider bringing in more featured guests on his projects.
For a deep house album, there are plenty of moments on Generationwhy that put commercial success in the crosshairs. “Hometown Girl” features summery guitar chords and a chorus that bears a striking melodic resemblance to Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister.”
On the other hand, “Secret Weapon” is absolutely cringe-worthy, and its blunt lyrics clash with ZHU’s hard-earned sense of shadowy restraint. Lyrics like “You’re my secret weapon/ My sexy piece of heaven/ Girl, you make me better/ I swear we’ll be together” would be an embarrassment for any artist, but for ZHU they’re especially dissonant.
The producer clearly has high aspirations, and the album’s freshman philosophy major title indicates as much. ZHU is not without talent, but needs to begin developing an identity that’s more than just anonymous. While such gimmicks can work in electronic music–The Range’s terrific Potential was built around YouTube samples of amateur singers and rappers—ZHU’s lack of identity simply doesn’t translate to a full album. The transition to albums can be tricky for producers–just ask Kygo. ZHU has shown enough in his one-off tracks and remixes that he should be able to craft something of note down the road. Anonymity doesn’t work for everyone, and ZHU is destined to be more than just the Bansky of electronic music.