Instrumental hip-hop can be tricky. Sifting through the genre's Bandcamp tags indicates an impressive volume of work, but by the same token, there's also more paint-by-numbers Jay Dee worship being shoveled online than ever before. Like experimental film, or poetry, you have to ask of the artist. "Am I in good hands?"
With Randy Maples, better known as Trandle, that answer is yes. Stylish and scrappy, his debut album, hi key low key, has plenty to offer as a portrait of a young Durham beatmaker sharpening his craft. A brief spin through the thirty-nine-minute record, the second release on Durham's Raund Haus Records, quickly demonstrates Trandle's beatmaking chops and his keen ear for eclectic sounds. Hi key low key hopscotches all over the grid, from the blown-out lo-fi trap of "1382" to the breezy, dub-flecked ambience of "spring rydim." Beginning with a thick fuzz, "win//lose" builds up into gleeful glitchery. Trandle even throws in a nod to footwork on the effervescent "bye," which whirls through repetitious chipmunk soul.
Trandle's roots stem from Durham's skate culture, and that scene's DIY, anything-goes experimentation is reflected in the amount of wild experimentation on hi key low key. As with skating, Trandle's approach to his music sometimes relies on making up his own tricks as he goes along. But when those tricks are stacked end to end, not everything lands with equal success. Some cuts from hi key low key feel less labored over and fleshed out than others, sometimes resting too slavishly on riding out a decent sample loop into the dusk. However, with seventeen tracks, few of which pass the three-minute mark, it's not a fatal flaw.
The unifying thread of hi key low key is its production, which feels comfortably lived-in, never sterile or cartoonishly overdone—something that can be a make-or-break factor for most instrumental hip-hop. It seems that everyone and their brother wants to jack gauzy throwback aesthetics to color their beats lately, and it's refreshing that Trandle demonstrates imagination and humanity in his presentation. All in all, hi key low key is a strong start for Trandle, another fine example of the electronic and hip-hop underground that quietly flourishes in this part of the state.