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May/June 2015 issue:

Kahlil Joseph's Double Act
– Lilly Lampe

A Pilot for a Show
About Nowhere

– Martine Syms

– Travis Diehl

Revisiting Cyberfeminism
– Cornelia Sollfrank

The Sniffers
– Maija Timonen

Abra: BLQ Velvet

– by Sam Thorne

Web Exclusive:
Movement as Social Consciousness
Interview: Lauri Stallings

– Maggie Davis

May/June 2015
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Abra: BLQ Velvet
Awful Records, Atlanta

Text / Sam Thorne

Abra, Diamonds & Gold, 2014, video still [courtesy of the artist and Awful Media Group]

If you listen to a lot of music online and you were born before, say, 1989, this is by now familiar: how that mirage-like sense of stumbling upon something new evaporates with the realization that your YouTube treasure is old news for circa 32 million people. Somehow I assumed this would be the case when, earlier this year, I first found Abra. But not only did the young singer/producer's two "official" videos seem to be shot on a mid-2000s Nokia, neither had more than 10,000 views. By most metrics, Abra was unknown, and I had discovered her.

Invisibility probably isn't Abra's ultimate aim, though the way that she lurks in the shadows feels more calculated than accidental. Her still-slender oeuvre already abounds with images of darkness: she calls herself the Darkwave Duchess, and her mesmeric debut EP is titled BLQ Velvet (2015), the stand-out track from which is called "Fade 2 Blaq." (The pieces of writing on Abra I initially managed to find all described her aesthetic as "black-lit.") Her solo tracks—to date, I count 10—are nocturnal and woozy, yet Spartan and meticulous, too. They are the distant relatives of Aaliyah and Timbaland's razor-sharp late-1990s collaborations, refracted through sounds of the last half-dozen years: Cassie's dead-eyed minimalism, Burial's penumbral glow, Dean Blunt's off-key experimentation.

Abra, who is currently at work on her debut album, was born in South London and moved to suburban Atlanta at the age of 10. During college she fell in with the Atlanta-based Awful Records after its founders saw some of her YouTube videos, in which she played acoustic covers of hip-hop tracks from the city's mainstays. Within Atlanta's current domination of the mainstream, from Gucci Mane's trap house juggernaut to Future and Young Thug, Awful Records represents something else. The outfit is more a collective of rappers, producers, and vocalists than a record label; it seems to share some of the grassroots eccentricities of LA's Odd Future, though is psychedelic rather than archly misanthropic. Their de facto leader goes by Father (whose track "Spoil You Rotten" Abra has covered on the guitar); another member, Ethereal, has produced drum 'n' bass as well as hip-hop. Mostly they have excellent names: Pyramid Quince, Lord Narf. Another member, Stalin Majesty, was probably understating the case when he said that Awful Records isn't "some lab-created recipe."

It's been almost 15 years since the death of Houston's DJ Screw, at age 29, and his influence echoes in the music of Abra and some of her cohort. DJ Screw's central innovation was to slow down other people's records—a move "so simple," as Jace Clayton (aka DJ /rupture) has noted, "that it has philosophical heft." The deliberate, decelerated musical effect moves away from the aggressive communal space of the club and into the intimate spaces of bedrooms and cars—perhaps onto the semi-public front porches ubiquitous in the South. Clayton, writing on the legacy of chopped-and-screwed music back in 2010, could just as easily have been writing about Abra in 2015: "Dark tunes get darker. The bass goes viscous."

In this slow world, sultry and unhinged, voices morph from virtuosic to androgynous to demonic. The supernatural, the occult, and the way the "southern gothic" currently stalks popular culture are all instruments that Abra plays with. Her stage name is, afterall, made up of the first two syllables of an incantation. The cover of her BLQ Velvet EP appears to adapt the True Blood promo poster—a porcelain backdrop, someone's lower face, the bright lips dripping with blood, all captioned with the commandment, "Thou shall not crave thy neighbor"—with a negative filter: white becomes a glistening mauve, and dark red turns to pink, which thickly oozes from a mouth like liquid fangs.

In a guest verse on New York producer Hiko Momoji's recent track "Late Nights," Abra sings: "Your boy called me a succubus 'cause I want all your time ...." In the video for her single "Diamonds & Gold," Abra prowls a park at night; the whites of her eyes are blacked out. One YouTube user comment reads, "weird but dope," yet the narrative carried by the saturnine imagery and impossibly seductive vocals is hyper-articulate: Abra will use her magic to reclaim pop-cultural territories.

– Sam Thorne

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