In every pop culture era, there are always a handful of artists who just plain make sense for what’s going on in music. ZHU may have gotten his actual start a couple years ago, but his unique, melancholy style of electronic music made the post-EDM landscape of 2016 the ideal time to release his debut album, GENERATIONWHY.
A series of dreamlike soundscapes encapsulate the full breadth of the Los Angeles DJ/producer’s first studio-length effort. Without resigning himself to any particular genre, he manages to seamlessly blend elements of house, hip-hop, jazz and rock in a way that doesn’t come across as forced. Even the prominence of instrumental samples from song to song seems genuine; for the most part each arrangement consists of only what it needs to with little added for filler.
Only a few entries on the GENERATIONWHY’s tracklist belong to singles that ZHU shared with the public prior to its official release. The earliest of which was his and Skrillex’s collaboration, “Working for It” featuring THEY, which originally capped off ZHU’s cryptic Genesis Series last year.
The producer accompanied the announcement of his Neon City tour with an unsettling music video for “Touch Me” back in February, then the title track and “Hometown Girl” in the two months leading up to the album’s release. The strongest song on the album may well be the only other one released early: “Palm of My Hand.” The somber guitar solo in the beginning foreshadows its heavy instrumental leanings, as brass and strings sections compliment its otherwise understated production elements and entrancing vocals.
GENERATIONWHY begins artfully. In the intro track, an ethereal saxophone solo underscores a cryptic monologue, before a faint four-four beat and disconcertingly whispering voice close it out. “Cold Blooded” follows, featuring a syncopated drum pattern under which an exchange between saxophone, singing and synths serves up another iteration of ZHU’s dark brand of lounge music.
After “Touch Me” is “Secret Weapon,” which captures a similar vibe as ZHU’s first Genesis Series single, “Automatic” featuring AlunaGeorge – likely owing to contributions by an as-yet-unnamed female vocalist. “Electrify Me” comes next, featuring nostalgic synth work that calls songs from Disclosure’s Settle to mind.
Next up is “Numb.” Piano chords duel with an electric guitar solo in the beginning of the track, but then a distinctively ZHU bass line takes over. At this point, GENERATIONWHY’s major shortcoming presents itself: Too many of its songs sound the same. Several are in the same key, and largely interchangeable melodies keep much of its tracklist from standing out – well executed as production may be.
“Palm of My Hand” follows “Numb,” before dovetailing into “Money,” which symbolically starts with the sound of a life support flatline abruptly followed by that of a bill counter. The song makes for a softer implementation of his style, with synth work and instrumentals that feather in and out before a saxophone solo builds up to a more striking crescendo.
“One Minute To Midnight” exhibits a similar sound – contrary to what you might expect based on the likeness in title to power metal band Iron Maiden’s 1984 hit “2 Minutes To Midnight.” ZHU’s vocals are accompanied by those of an unidentified vocalist in “Reaching” – albeit a different one from the singer in “Secret Weapon” by the sound of it.
“Hometown Girl” follows, and as I’ve said before, it’s the weak link on GENERATIONWHY. The lower tempo and more easily digested chord progressions suggest that it was intended to be more accessible than the other songs on the album. It’s still leaps and bounds ahead of most popular artists’ flops, and the experimental synth interlude near the end of the song does make for a redeeming quality.
“Good Life” and “Generationwhy,” meanwhile, offer up more meandering melodies and ethereal synth work. The former track also features spoken word samples that tie it back to the intro – which perhaps would have made it a better closing for ZHU’s debut album than “Working For It.”
By and large, ZHU’s first feature-length album, GENERATIONWHY, will satisfy those with whom his dark yet infectious style has come to resonate. While a wider creative range could have certainly helped the effort, the fact that he’s developed such a unique and instantly recognizable signature style ultimately outweighs the shortcoming. Only time will tell whether ZHU will be able to build upon his sound tastefully without betraying fans who have fallen in love with what he’s delivered so far, but it’s safe to say he’s off to a good start.
If you’re interested in taking home GENERATIONWHY on vinyl, be sure to enter our contest, as we’re giving away 3 copies!
ZHU's GENERATIONWHY makes for a strong and long-awaited debut album. With minimal strikes against it, the effort has established the multi-instrumentalist's signature sound, leaving fans eager to see how he builds onto it in the years to come.