LP is Standard Jacket, Printed Inner Sleeve, & Download Card.
CD is 4 Panel Digipack.
In the life of any interesting artist, there is the perpetual war between the simplicity of public perception and the complexities of reality. Consider Hanni El Khatib, a definitive purveyor of visceral, blues-wracked, punk-spiked, soul-warped, knife fight rock n’ roll over the last decade. You may be familiar with him through any one of his four acclaimed solo albums on Innovative Leisure, his work with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, or as one of the rare polymaths able to artfully blend serrated guitars and hardcore rap on collaborations with GZA and Freddie Gibbs. And while these are all real things that could accurately yield a sketch of the multi-dimensional Los Angeles-based artist, they amount to little more than a black and white pencil sketch.
More compelling is the Hanni El Khatib of terrestrial existence, who is less susceptible to being pigeonholed by shrewd branding or capsule biography. There is the Hanni El Khatib who existed before he was a professional musician. This was the rap and punk-revering San Francisco skate rat, who grew up digging in the crates for samples to flip on his bedroom MPC -- who would eventually become the creative director for the venerable streetwear label HUF. There is the second chapter in which El Khatib moved to LA to pursue music full-time and almost immediately found himself embraced by KCRW and on tour with Florence and the Machine. Music supervisors synced his music in Audi commercials that played at the Super Bowl. The LA Times said that El Khatib's voice is like “woodsmoke or bourbon, acrid yet sweet, as timeless as jeans and a T-shirt… versatile enough to make a classic sound fresh again.” While across the pond, The Guardian claimed that El Khatib was like “if Joe Strummer came back as an angry young Filipino-Palestinian American.”
From 2010 until 2017, there was the usual cycle that consumes most working 21st musicians: make an album, and tour it for the next 18 months. Return home, rinse and repeat. And with it came the predictable pitfalls that ensnare too many artists whose professional obligations require high-octane performances before 1,000 or more strangers every night. It is a dream until that one night when it isn’t any longer, and despite his gratitude for his fans and station in life, El Khatib found himself wracked by depression and anxiety. What had once been joyous creative outlet felt like a job. In the wake of the release of 2017’s Savage Times, it became readily apparent that if El Khatib didn’t make drastic changes to his lifestyle, there might not be a life to speak of. So he quit drinking, stopped touring, and took an indefinite hiatus from the studio.
With music temporarily out of the picture, El Khatib returned to one of his first loves: design. Partnering with his longtime friend and former employer Keith Hufnagel of HUF, El Khatib founded Metropolitan, a popular skateboard brand that recently did a collaborative run with Adidas. But eventually, the desire to create songs slowly returned. It helped that El Khatib purposely downsized his living arrangements, moving out of a spacious house with a well-appointed studio in Beachwood Canyon into a smaller dwelling with a bedroom lab that mirrored the cramped confines of how El Khatib first began making music as a teenager.
What would eventually become El Khatib’s fifth studio album, the virtuosic but characteristically raw Flightbegan as spontaneous experimentation. Over the last several years, El Khatib had become close friends with Leon Michels, best known as the mastermind of the soul controllers, the El Michels Affair, but who has also quietly racked up producer credits for the likes of pop juggernauts like Lana Del Rey, Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky, and Eminem -- as well as frequently working in sessions with Grammy-winning super-producer Mark Ronson.
At first, their jams were intended as riffs and breaks for other producers to sample, but quickly, El Khatib decided to say fuck the middleman. Why create samples, when they could create the entire beat themselves? The process unfolded casually and organically. El Khatib took a few trips to Michels’ studio in upstate New York, and when Michels would come to LA to produce the new Chicano Batman record or to work with Ronson, he’d steal away an afternoon to help create Flight.
The finished result is a rollicking sampledelic opus that recalls the beautiful chaos that the Dust Brothers created on Paul’s Boutique and Odelay. Or maybe the euphoric bricolage of the Avalanches’ Since I Left You crossed with the aggrieved darkness of the early Prodigy. Of course, it’s all filtered through the singular style that El Khatib has developed over the previous ten years. Take a song like “Room,” the first finished song on the album. Built off a scuzzy drum break and hypnotic pianos, the pair of El Khatib and Michels recorded it live to tape, then sampled it through outboard gear into the computer a la Portishead. Then they put it in Ableton, chopped the hell out of it, re-edited it and stitched back together into a collage. It’s the type of thing that Dilla and Madlib would’ve created if they had come up on The Cramps.
The creative process was governed by whatever helped them move through the compositions quickly. If they got stuck, they’d delete it. Because El Khatib wasn’t concerned with the need to perform the songs live, it unlocked a new level. So rather than blistering guitar attacks, you might hear two drum samples, a live flute, and a weird fucked up tape loop that could never be played live. It’s creativity for its own sake, the only type that’s really important. A song like “Dumb” plays out like post-modern minimalist doo-wop written for a Spaghetti Western reboot that needed a new Morricone score. “Alive” is a levitative groove with a narcotic jazz piano riff built atop a bruised but euphoric vocal that asks, slightly dumbfounded, “I can’t believe I survived.” And yes, “Stressy” has a ghostride the whip reference because you can take the artist out of the Bay but…
The irony, of course, is that for a record that sounds like little else El Khatib has ever done, it’s the most complete embodiment of who he is as an artist. It’s a record both dense and intricate yet direct and spontaneous. It is garage rock, it is hip-hop, it is soul, it is blues, it is psychedelic, but more than anything, it’s a brilliant Hanni El Khatib record -- one that taps into the adolescent spirit of creation that first stirred him to make songs in the first place. Here he is on his fifth album, back for the first time.