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Album of the Month: 'Northern Natives EP' by Various Artists

Photo by Tre James

Northern Natives EP
Various artists
(Northern Natives)

Amid so much divisiveness and confusion, music continues to be a force of unity and purpose. Check out Northern Natives, a Seattle collective of musicians from diverse backgrounds aligned around a sophisticated brand of R&B-inflected hip-hop. Their new, eponymous compilation is a model of egalitarianism. And it bangs.

This young crew picked one of the finest touchstones available to contemporary music producers: J Dilla, the Detroit-based icon, deceased in 2006, who crafted his own essential style of hip-hop. Dilla’s knowledge of soul, jazz, rock and funk was profound, and throughout his discography his music was complex and nuanced as well as proudly joyful. As heard on all five songs on this EP, Northern Natives share his sense of celebration. (Northern Natives’ first two mixtapes, released over the last 18 months, were titled Donuts & Coffee I and II, in homage to Dilla’s classic Donuts.) This isn’t party music per se; it’s deeper than that. Counter to Seattle’s current crop of codeine-dimmed hip-hop, neither is it introverted or nihilistic. This is music built for active, collective acknowledgement: Shit is fucked and only together can we make it better.

The first track, by duo Soultanz featuring MistaDC on gorgeous vocals, opens with a nimble jazz guitar lick and a scuffed, shuffling beat. “Zonin Out” is an ideal entry to the entire Northern Natives sound—eclectic components that are indebted to previous eras, cohered into fresh compositions. It closes with a potent coda, DC singing, “I don’t even know why I’m here/Purpose is a thing we all fear/Fuck a plan I’ll be fine in five years.”

Samurai Del, aka Alex Lawrence, is the prime mover behind Northern Natives as well as one of its most prolific producers. His “Black Coffee” is another would-be hit. Yacht-rock sax and luminous synths meld with sing-rap vocals from Tapper into a low-key burner applicable to the dancefloor or bedroom. Somehow this funky Frankenstein sounds entirely now.

At less than two minutes, DNZ’s “Roses” is the shortest cut here, more a sensuous sketch than a full song. Sendai Era, the duo of producer Sendai Mike and MC Era, have been around a minute, releasing the solid Morphic Rez EP late last year; they enlist rapper Turtle T—himself part of another Seattle hip-hop collective called Nu Era—for “Second Sunrise,” a slick, catchy fusion of soft-focus trap and EDM. CiDi, the newest member of Northern Natives, turns in the comp’s closer, a hazy urban nocturne called “I Forget” that slots alongside Seattle’s fertile ambient-electronic scene.

With its clear-eyed vision and generous sense of cooperation, Northern Natives glimpses into a very promising world. Word is there’s more to come from the crew in 2017. Fingers crossed. We’re gonna need all the cooperation we can get.

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