BOOTS knows a thing or two about sex — his handle of synths and bass could make nearly anything arousing. That is, except his voice.
Entering the public eye by thrilling listeners with his contributions to Beyoncé’s vividly sensual self-titled album, BOOTS’s hedonistic style has made him The Weeknd of producers. His work on Beyoncé’s “Haunted,” in particular, acts as a climatic core for the BOOTS’s aesthetic, a captivating track which pulsates its way into the blood. Since then, he’s had a busy schedule lending his hand to standout releases from artists du jour FKA Twigs and Run the Jewels.
Production-wise, AQUARIA still sees BOOTS casting his hypnotic sound. Opening track “Brooklyn Gamma” leads in with a spinning whirl. But the first verse is far from enthralling, and the best moments come when BOOTS’s voice is least recognizable. This pattern is all too prevalent throughout AQUARIA. The spell of BOOTS-the-producer is too often broken by BOOTS-the-singer/rapper. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than “I Run Roulette,” an especially abrasive track, not because of the shredding bass line, but because his hook is nearly unbearable. At times you can’t help but wonder if he’s intentionally irritating his listeners. He works hard to keep himself “under the radar,” and he has a habit of putting up music on SoundCloud just to take it down a few hours later. While at first this seemed like a marketing ploy, the emergence of AQUARIA could signal that BOOTS actually holds mild disdain for his fans.
Lack of vocal talent is often forgivable if the artist can say something profound. Many rock band singers, if put on a scale, fall closer to William Hung than Adele. Yet most of BOOTS’s lyrics are inconsequential or simply unnecessary, and lines like “but a teacher can't teach us how to give a fuck” come across like an angsty 13-year-old’s Tumblr feed. For the most part, BOOTS’s hooks and ballads far outshine his “rap” verses. When he recognizes this, the result is largely successful. “Only,” a tender ballad that evokes those he produced on Beyoncé (“Heaven,” “Blue”), is a high point of the album, and signals hope for BOOTS’s future releases.
BOOTS’s true genius lies in his ability to support strong female voices, a niche which is applied far too sparsely on AQUARIA. Deradoorian, the sole feature, croons delicately on the title track in what is probably the best performance you’ll find throughout all eleven songs. Perhaps BOOTS’s apprehension for guest appearances comes from how ingrained his previous success has been in those collaborations. BOOTS would be nothing without Beyoncé, and he is keenly aware of this fact.
But in trying to break away from this dependence, he ignores his strengths. His most recent Beyoncé collaboration, the “Crazy in Love (Remix)” for the “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack, is infinitely more evocative of the “BOOTS” aesthetic than BOOTS’s own release. The hallmarks of his production soak through: a slow building piano base, subtle background clicks, and an explosive, aching chorus. Whereas BOOTS’s vocals diminish his tracks, Beyoncé’s gorgeous, breathy singing can tackle the production and demands attention. His collaboration with FKA Twigs followed a similar formula. “Mothercreep” fluttered and lurched with Twig’s high-pitched vocals, and the desirous atmosphere materialized clearly. These are tracks that you can feel. There is little on AQUARIA which has the same power. The songs are holding back, perhaps to accommodate the limitations of BOOTS singing, and the result is a rather detached album.
Still, AQUARIA is an improvement from BOOTS’s first solo release. WinterSpringSummerFall was far more cluttered and included lyrical gems like “pussy tastes like apple juice, baby that’s a juice box.” While AQUARIA is by no means poetry, it avoids confusing lyricism and manages to focus itself, a cautious sign that BOOTS can learn from his own shortcomings. You can’t help but wish, though, that BOOTS would follow the lead of producers like Arca, Burial and Jamie xx, all of whom have demonstrated the power that electronic tracks can hold without reliance on vocals.
AQUARIA is better as a reminder of BOOTS’s relevance rather than as a stand-alone album. He doesn’t yet have a handle on the solo album, but that doesn’t mean that his skill behind the boards is in any way diminished. There are plenty of artists that are itching to use this enormously popular sound, and a single, well-calculated collaboration could be much more effective than the entirety of AQUARIA.