Boots first attracted attention as the producer of Beyoncé’s “Haunted”—a factoid that unfortunately or not precedes his every artistic move. The swollen, echoing beats of that track are often cited as the perfect example of his style in the same way that Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” is considered a hallmark of Timbaland’s sound. The error in this thinking though is that, Boots, whose real name is Jordan Asher, isn’t a traditional producer. He’s a multitasking millennial; a self-taught, multi-instrumentalist who dabbles in graphic design and cinematography, and as such his debut full-length album, Aquaria, sounds much less like Beyoncé’s “Haunted” and much more like the score of a Ridley Scott film.
Aquaria has Asher in charge of every vertical of his sound—from vocals to percussion—and therein lies the problem with the album. Asher is a thoughtful and innovative composer with many proponents in high places: He’s currently on tour with Run The Jewels and he recently finished working on FKA Twig’s futuristic EP, M3LL155X. But he’s not yet a fully-realized artist, and on this album he is trying desperately to grasp onto an identity: The last man standing in a post-apocalyptic desert: “I’m the only one alive” he sings on the song “Only.” Or a hallucinating zombie in the middle of a fever dream: “They come running like a wolf with a meat purse” as he whisper-raps on “Dead Come Running.”
In trying to cobble himself together, Asher lacks discretion. His music is one part baroque pop—in the same wheelhouse as Perfume Genius and Autre Ne Veut—and equal parts rock and R&B. Flashes of Prince and Trent Reznor appear throughout the album in equal measure. More often than not it’s all these things in a single song. And sometimes the culminating effect of all this chaos is clarity, like on the stunning opener, “Brooklyn Gamma,“ but other times, it’s just chaos.
Like a chef working with too many ingredients, Asher often gets lost in the endless options his talents afford him. On “C.U.R.E.” bass lines back into clanging claps which lead into brash, minor chord wallops on the piano. And while the next track, “Oraclies” is a softer listen, most of the first half of Aquaria comes across as an effort to inundate, if not aggravate the listener—a goal that Asher comes close to accomplishing on the song “Bombs Away” which opens with a low frequency whirring sound that recalls the sensation of being submerged in a pool while trying to interpret what someone above water is saying to you.
Asher’s half-baked identity bleeds through most severely in the lyrics. Vapid neologisms like, “Oraclies,” are clever but beg for an explanation, and when Asher refuses to give one, they fail to make an impression. He wants the message to be opaque. Instead, it’s invisible.
What works best on Aquaria are the minimalist tracks like the evocative “Only.’ On this track, the elements are cued up more mindfully. Asher layers his sounds with restraint which allows things to snap as opposed to crash into place. The album’s most notable moments occur when Asher chooses to deploy his lilting falsetto over the whisper-rap he often uses. Both on the aforementioned, “Only” and album closer, “Still” Asher enlists his vocals to carry their fair share of the songs’ weight, taking some heft out of the production, and creating more balanced tracks overall. This is the same formula that works when Asher lends his songs to others. On Run The Jewels 2, Killer Mike’s vocals emboldened Asher’s apocalyptic production and the result of their partnership was a cohesive and furious sound. Aquaria is too aware of itself to achieve that kind of singularity. It’s an album full of musical precision and technical achievements that ultimately reveals Boots to be exactly who he is: Jordan Asher, a prodigy producer eager to find his own voice.