San-Franciscan Hanni El Khatib has had an interesting rise to fame. Initially working as creative director for streetwear label HUF, Khatib began recording himself playing guitar and singing, which eventually led to the co-founding of record label Innovative Leisure. Khatib picked up speed with his 2011 debut record ‘Will the Guns Come Out’, attracting the attention of fellow bluesman Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), who went on to produce his 2013 sophomore record ‘Head in the Dirt’. Khatib’s third studio album, ‘Moonlight’, dropped in early 2015, where he further refined his established signature garage rock sound. Following the release, he enjoyed his breakthrough success (‘Moonlight’ was of course his best work to date) and took some time to work on a GZA track, as well as sitting behind the mixing board for some of his Innovative Leisure peers.
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‘Savage Times’, now officially Khatib’s fourth studio album, has very much been a public work and production over the last year. It’s essentially a mix tape of five EP volumes that were released throughout 2016, with four previously unheard cuts showing up on the full release. Therefore, it’s an ambitious nineteen-track project, especially considering the wide array of musical styles and directions Hanni explores here. Due to the format of the multiple EPs, the full release is decidedly sloppy and acts more as a compilation, rather than possessing a cohesive narrative. This isn’t a major negative however, as it does feature some prominent personal themes, such as self-identification, culture & oppression.
Hanni El Khatib’s awareness and willingness to sonically expand should be commended. Whilst his prior three records were indeed high-quality, they did not push the boundaries beyond his now signature garage rock sound. ‘Savage Times’ is perhaps his answer to avoiding the notion of being typecast and tied to his scuzzy rock sound for the remainder of his career.
The sixty-minute/nineteen-track runtime should not be feared, as Khatib keeps the listener engaged with never a dull moment to be had. Whether it’s the impassioned ‘Born Brown’ with its punchy synthwave aesthetic, all the way to ‘1am’, a subdued and stinted acoustic ballad. The array of musical styles Hanni touches on is absurd, featuring most major modern styles (except dubstep). The pop funk of ‘Paralyzed’ alludes to late-era Daft Punk, whilst Khatib channels his inner Ray Manzarek on ‘Mondo and His Makeup’ and ‘Peep Show’ gives off Gorillaz vibes with its lo-fi, hip-hop backbone.
Khatib doesn’t completely desert his fuzzy, garage-blues ways, as demonstrated on cut ‘Black Constellation’ which oozes with his recognisable sleazy grooves. Likewise, ‘So Dusty’ is akin to his debut material, lined with falsetto vocals and a piercing guitar solo. ‘Freak Freely’ brings the album to a close, thus communicating the main take-away theme of being oneself. “Be yourself (even if it kills you)” Khatib chants over the layers of wacky, constantly evolving instrumentation, eventually deconstructing.
Hanni El Khatib takes an approach to his fourth studio album that is refreshing, both for the industry and his own personal development and sonic experimentation. Whether he wanted to free himself from being typecast to one genre, or simply wanted to sonically expand and experiment, this album deserves a sure-fire listen.
‘Savage Times’ is out February 17th via Innovative Leisure.