For an album that’s full of delectable, easy-to-listen-too sounds, The Range‘s sophomore album Potential is an incredibly complex project. Barely using any lyrics, the US producer has bound his latest record with themes of success, love and loss, exploring his own emotion but also tackling the emotions felt by others. Instead of dusting off old record and using samples from there, James Hinton sampled vocalists from the depth of YouTube, the undiscovered type singing into webcams, and interlaced them into his emotional journey. In 2009, Hinton’s mother passed away and while he was working on this album he went through a breakup. With that in mind, Potential works in two ways with Hinton explaining the voice’s stories through his instrumentals and the voices echoing his own emotions.
“Right now I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it,” a voice says on the album’s opening track Regular, immediately beginning a narrative about success in the world of creative arts. It’s an industry that requires a lot of emotional groundwork and one that often doesn’t reward you in the end. Hinton takes that as a foundation here and builds around it an atmospheric world of lush, circling beats that place more emphasis on the idea of “I’ll just move onto something bigger and better,” rather than the pain of moving on from a dream.
Regular introduces a general feeling that permeates the entire record. No matter how dark it gets, there’s always a hint of optimism. It’s full of uplifting synths and slowly expanding soundscapes that eventually throw the hands of the listener in the air. One of the best examples of this is the track Copper Wire which deals with the death of his mother. As Hinton told Pitchfork, he found a YouTube rapper Kruddy Zak who freestyled the lyric “09 was emotional” about a lost loved one, and he’s the voice sampled on this track. Hinton captures that emotion in the track offering-up dense, beautiful synths with a soundscape that gradually explodes into something gorgeous. An altered voice howls “without you,” while Zac raps “everything’s changed”. Even without knowing the backstory, your heart automatically beats for this song because of the story he tell with his beautiful instrumentation.
With Florida capping out the beginning three tracks, it’s hard to imagine a better start to the album. It’s an expansive trio that ends with Florida‘s damning horn-like synths that add a much-needed weight to the record. Those particular synths are juxtaposed by steel drums, highlighting the battle between the light and dark that plays out on the entire album. If you fast-forward to the perky closing track 1804, it’s easy to recognise that the light wins out. “Give me stability and guidance,” a voice raps to a spiritual being of any kind to help deal with some of the questions presented on the album that remain largely unanswered, most likely because there is no answer.
Moving through the highs and lows of this record is one of its greatest rewards but there are a number of tracks that stand confidently by themselves. Superimpose is a funky, dance floor-oriented track that wouldn’t sound out of place on a DJDS project, while Five Four tackles the genre-of-the-moment grime, pulling it into a haunting, cloudy instrumental that’s texturally near-perfect. It often feels like The Range has a festival-ready, euphoric hit inside him but he’s held back from it. Doing that would’ve meant that he would have to forgo some of the finesse that he uses on each track and disrupt the narrative of the album. Even by not choosing big-name features, he’s making a conscious decision to make Potential an entirely personal project. By curating vocalists and samples from pre-made sound clips, he’s able to decide what suits his music rather than handing it to a vocalist to manoeuvre themselves into it.
While it’s easy to let the emotional experience of Potential, there’s also a lot to admire in terms of production. He crams a lot of sounds into the project and yet it never sounds crowded or too busy. Skeptical bleeps and strobes at a ferocious pace with aggressive beats joint by warbling bass. Even though he’s US-based, the British vocal sample recalls some of the nostalgia for the British club scene that Jamie xx conjured on his excellent debut last year. Retune is also a busy tune, creating anxiety with circling keys and short-lived vocal samples but he still manages to anchor it all with one calming, consistent synth-line.
Throughout potential there are detours into grime and British electronic music, but for the most part Hinton isn’t occupying any particular space of electronic music. He’s not trying to create something for others to follow or attempting to be intricate for the sake of ostracising people who aren’t true musicians. Potential is just an expertly crafted record that comes unfiltered from a creator who is emotional, technical and inquisitive. By using voices plucked from YouTube those he’s taken his own complicated feelings and made them universal. That’s why the record is so easy to connect to and it’s what will keep you coming back to it too.