Halfway through Omar S’ new album is a song dedicated to Detroit’s house scene. Over a simmering disco loop Big Strick lists the players and venues that have contributed to Motor City’s status as the eternal home of dance music. Few would argue that Alex O. Smith deserves a place in the list. Through a run of simple, muscular releases on his own FXHE label, Smith has cemented his place in the city’s canon.
But it’s not just Smith’s skill with his machines that has made Omar S a modern legend. It’s also the respect and love that he has for his city’s musical history, a feeling cemented in the loving shout-outs of this mid-album cut. The influences of soul, RnB and techno trace a path through all of his songs. Treating this history with care and a touch of irreverence, he has forged one of the most impressive house discographies this side of the millennium.
Smith’s albums generally provide a grab-bag snapshot of where he’s at musically at the time, veering between disco, techno and softer RnB-infused takes. They’re always raw and percussion-focused, with his drum machines tapping out a dizzying selection of powerful, deceptively sophisticated rhythms. What hasn’t always been a given is a real sense of consistency or variety in his sound. The latest, titled ‘The Best’ with a knowing wink, presents a real step forward on both fronts. It doesn’t quite bear the standout club smashes that his previous LPs did, but there’s a range and coherence here which is fresh and impressive.
There are plenty of tracks here to blow off the roof. It wouldn’t be an Omar S album if there weren’t. Norm Talley’s mix of Time Mo 1 makes for a gentle opener, its elegant string loop swaying behind slicing hi hats, rustling cymbals and the slightest wiggle of a bassline. You Silk Suit Wearin MuLaFuk’ka offers more restrained atmospherics, its jittering synths and dry rhythms giving way to a frayed filtering towards the close. Meanwhile second cut Take Ya Pik, Nik!!!!! offers one of Smith’s vintage basslines, bound by an affecting three-note melody and an uneasy synth sway. It’s not all bright though – Bitch…. I’ll Buy Another One!!! is a rough techno beast fashioned from tunnelling acid lines and heaving kicks, while Buggin Out is tough with a little less growl, the percussion concentrated in the high-end over a synth that flashes like a lighthouse.
As accomplished as these purer dance tracks are, they’re what we expected from a new Omar S album. That’s why the handful of cuts that tweak the formula are so exciting. Chama Piru’s is one of Smith’s strangest cuts to date, with a stuttering kick reigning over a drift of samples like flotsam. These range from far-off diva cries to disassociated pan pipes, like hearing someone else’s party filter through a wall. Smash sees FXHE associates Ob Ignitt and Kyle Hall take to the keys for a gentle crush of stammering drums and sweet synthplay, while On Your Way is this album’s Set It Out or Rewind, an irresistibly snappy vocal burner. Closing cut Heard’ Chew Single features the vocals of John FM on one of Smith’s prettiest productions, where soft keys waltz with a martial drum pattern.
Omar S does what he does so well that no one really needed him to change. And yet when you get to a song like Ah’ Revolution, where bongos and a broad bassline dip in and out over candlelit jazz keys, it’s clear how much Smith flourishes outside of his usual style. The lyrics, slurred out by multi-instrumentalist Amp Fiddler, couch a night of partying as a cry for social change (or is it the other way round?) We already knew that Omar S was the king of raw, funky house jams. What’s so enticing about The Best is to hear him push his ample skill in new directions.