You could shove Skinny Pelembe into so many boxes, but whether he would break out was never in doubt.
After all, Giles Peterson did sign him sight unseen all the way back in 2017. The BBC disc jockey had gone to see Skinny at The Waiting Room in north London, but the show was so packed that Peterson was stuck listening outside. It’s not hard to hear what he was envisioning, though. Skinny’s strange brew of ambient jazz, hardboiled rap and noodling post-punk made perfect sense when paired with fellow future bubblers like Emma Jean-Thackeray.
But despite cosigns from Grace Jones, Madlib and Iggy Pop, Skinny’s big debut flew under the radar. It’s not like there weren’t clear stand-out moments on Dreaming is Dead Now. “My Love is Burning, Down” shivers like a fever dream and Skinny’s hypnotic flow heaves between the empty pockets of “I’ll Be On Your Mind”. But even he’s admitted that those songs don’t immediately jump out at you.
“That album is a bit more chilled”, he told Hero. “You’d look out at the crowd at festivals and they’re all enjoying it but just swaying or chin-scratching”.
Hardly the Same Snake isn’t a completely different beast. Skinny’s new album was produced by Malcolm Cato, who was behind the boards for his first one. This time around, the production is still murky. Each song comes lightly dusted with hazy synthetic textures. “Well, That’s a First” wanders like mist on a mountain road. But instead of settling into long, zonked-out grooves, these songs go for straight-up hooks. Cato is also the rhythmic mastermind behind nu-jazz collective The Heliocentrics and while he did record most of the drumming here live, Skinny opens the album by flipping a sample of those recordings into a chilly, rumbling, jungle breakbeat.
Skinny has been chopping it up in studios ever since he spied on his older brothers break-dancing to Liquid Swords. Still, there’s a reason why he now shares a label with Fontaines D.C. and IDLES. He started jamming in garage bands as a bushy-haired teenager, but reading Meet Me in the Bathroom during the pandemic was what inspired him to write good old-fashioned indie rockers. While the tones are still fuzzy, the guitars on Hardly the Same Snake are squeezed around tight slithering riffs. “Like a Heart Won’t Beat” fashions itself after The Walkmen, winding up with a musty reel of ragtime piano before bursting into full-blown color with a hot-wired guitar solo.
Fitting into this new leather-clad skin came naturally to Skinny. “Don’t Be Another” struts with all sorts of snazzy flourishes: hissing organ, string pops, rattles of tambourine. So it’s a bit shocking that the whole song came together in 20 minutes. Still, Hardly the Same Snake didn’t come so easily. Skinny can be a control freak. He gets so obsessive with loops and presets that leave him cooped up in the house for too long and he may never come out. Though work on this album began as soon as lockdown hit, he ended up scrapping the recordings…twice. Heck, he grew so frustrated that he shaved off all his damn hair.
While he’s still boys with Peterson, Skinny was nervous about leaving Brownswood. In that same interview with Hero, he remembers having panic attacks about whether another label would take him on board. But feeling lost at sea helped him find his voice — literally. A big reason behind all those murky layers of production was so he could hide his singing. “I never considered myself a singer before now”, he said in the press release announcing Hardly the Same Snake. But Skinny can sing. He’s blessed with a smooth, woozy baritone that reminds me of Damon Albarn. “Bits of you, were poking through, when I saw me,” he sings on the title track, surrounded by nothing but the slimy afterglow of his own echo.
Still, he remains plenty elusive. Skinny drew his lyrics from art gallery visits and they tend to spill out in colorful fragments and extended metaphors. Hardly the Same Snake is named after a triptych by Lucy Caldar and the cover art paints him out as a cross between a televangelist and an oil salesman, which seems like a commentary on mass media. Even a cut-and-dried romantic fling fades like a mirage amid the dusty shamble of “Charabanc”. But peeling away the wonkier layers of production and pushing his voice higher in the mix does reveal more of what Skinny is trying to say. “Brother, what you fighting with?” he wonders. “Your future? Or your past?”
Of course, Skinny Pelembe isn’t his real name. He was born Doya Beardmore, in Johannesburg, at the tail end of Apartheid. His mother is Black and was jailed more than once for marrying his dad, a white man from Birmingham who somehow hated soccer but loved American country singers like Marty Robbins. Eventually, his dad did move them back to England, and while Skinny still calls Doncaster home, he’s never felt settled there. “I think it’s time we emigrate”, he announces on “Oh, Silly George” between dubby scuttles of Afrobeat that are mixed with glitchy, 8-bit synth funk.
Despite emerging with a bolder sound and renewed confidence, Skinny doesn’t shake free of everything that’s trapping him. Anti-immigrant policies, corrupt preachers, familial pressures, the soul-sucking grind of working life — all loom over Hardly the Same Snake like some rusty cage. On the appropriately titled “Deadman, Deadman, Deadman”, he cycles through one dead-end job after another, only to end up with both feet in the grave. Skinny’s dad died sometime before Dreaming is Dead Now and he’s still haunted by those memories whenever he smiles in the mirror. Even though the album represents a transformation, he hasn’t shed all that grief. Sure, the galloping ragtime piano is lively, but it’s overshadowed by fear of his own mortality.
Maybe that’s why the album ends with “Secret Hiding Place”. At first, the song sounds like a step backwards. It’s the only song on Hardly the Same Snake that Skinny doesn’t sing. Actually, he’s nowhere to be found. What you’re hearing is a wordless harmony sung by Doncaster choir Rainbow Connection. It’s beautiful. But it’s also a trick he’s pulled before. Listen again though and beneath those floating voices lies a hidden message. I won’t tell you what it means. I can’t read Morse code (though you can figure it out just by checking the liner notes). But I like to think that this last song is like an old snakeskin. It’s not a sign of where Skinny is going, just that he’s continuing to evolve. One thing is clear though: he’s not hiding anymore.
Follow Skinny Pelembe