A Good Start
Though emcee/Dead Prez DJ Mike Flo and producer/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Devon Lee have long been associates, Royal marks their first collaborative effort. Their debut EP (not counting last year’s ROYALREMIXES project) Royal EP positions the duo as a fluid mixture of hip-hop, rock and EDM. While its best moments reveal a passable pop experiment from two musical vets, the record is most often a hodgepodge of uninspired synths, goofy nu-metal guitars and derivative vocal performances.
“Crash” opens with well-worn dubstep percussion and occasional four-on-the-floor pulses, suggesting a desire to emulate the hot sounds of the time — a suspicion only reinforced as the EP progresses. From Flo’s Yeezy-isms to Lee’s N*E*R*D* worship, almost every element of these six songs feels borrowed. While no artist can fully escape their influences, the palettes of latter-day Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and will.i.am (as well as Linkin Park’s vocal rasps and Incubus’s noodly guitar-work) permeates Royals’s sound to such a degree, their greatest weakness may be their lack of a distinct musical identity.
Which is particularly disappointing, since ROYALREMIXES’s reconfigurations of classic rock and pop songs saw Flo and Lee engaged in a gleeful experimentalism largely absent here. The mixtape’s success was the result of a solid vision and willingness to turn familiar tunes on their ear, with frequently surprising and highly entertaining results. That they were unable to bring a similar level of ingenuity to their own compositions is somewhat baffling, if not incredibly ironic.
Like its instrumentation, Royal EP‘s lyrical content is largely unspecific and forgettable (vague calls for a “sex revolution,” or “it’s a good day to live your life”). Closer “Mr. President” offers a slight exception — but even here, Mike Flo’s radical verses are undermined by the backing track’s chugga-chug hard rock riffs and flat, plodding drums.
Ultimately, Royal EP is an inoffensive — if unremarkable — debut. Its compositions sound like the work of old friends playing together for the first time; testing the waters, becoming familiar each other’s musical vocabulary. But beyond the EP’s banal textures, several moments — like the bass-squiggles of “Jump” or gothic tones of “Stranger”— hint at more evocative aural landscapes for Flo and Lee to explore, so long as they develop the vision necessary to stay the course.