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Fred again.. and the sounds of ‘Actual Life’

You’ve known about Fred John Philip Gibson (aka Fred again..) for far longer than you might think. The 29-year-old multitalented music producer and songwriter has spent the better part of the last decade helping some of the biggest artists in the world create their own work, for the most part opting to remain behind the scenes. But since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Gibson has finally stepped into the spotlight. 

Fred again.. has been making music all of his life. However, his breakthrough into the music industry came as the protégé of world-famous record producer and musician Brian Eno. Gibson’s first credited work is for writing and producing two collaborative albums between Eno and Karl Hyde of the group Underworld. While these records are certainly not what would win Gibson the 2020 Brit Awards’ Producer of the Year, they — long with Fred again..’s other work with Eno at his studio in London — would set the foundations both artistically and business-wise for the songs that would put Fred again.. atop the charts. Gibson would go on to write and produce hits such as George Ezra’s “Shotgun” while also contributing to 12 out of 15 songs on Ed Sheeran’s “No.6 Collaborations Project.” In spite of all his successes in hit-making, Gibson’s most artistically significant achievements would not come until he decided to go solo. 

The “Actual Life” style of music began with a chance encounter Fred again.. had with a construction worker named Carlos on a night out in Atlanta. Gibson had recorded parts of their conversation and decided to try to make a song out of it the next morning. This random interaction would spawn a going-on-three album series of records produced in this manner. Gibson will take voice clips from his friends, random acquaintances and on occasion other musicians or videos and splice them into new meaning through his music. 

While Fred again..’s style of production would conventionally fit into the house music genre, the melancholic pianos and ethereal synths scattered throughout the “Actual Life” series create an atmosphere much more somber than many house listeners would be used to. However, Gibson’s most fascinating innovation comes with his use of drums paired with these other elements along with his use of the human voice as an instrument, a technique which has become increasingly popular in hip-hop and the era of sampling, but has yet to be utilized in such a meaningful way. Fred’s use of light, crisp drum patterns, which deviate throughout the tracks unlike a lot of other house music, to complement the mellow beats he tends to craft create a feeling of optimism and perseverance, wherein the melodies and ambience of his records feel as if they are pulling the listener down below water while the drums push the track along, providing hope of being pulled to the surface. 

“Actual Life” is quite obviously a reaction to the pandemic, both in timing and message. During a year when people were drawn apart due to sickness and the terror of the disease itself or by regulations to protect the vulnerable, Fred again.. has made music connecting people to millions of others they will never meet through their words and emotions. The love of those around you and appreciation of their beauty as human beings which Fred again.. has been able to convey through his work is necessarily inspiring in a post-COVID world and has revolutionized a genre thought to be meant purely for clubs and partying. As his most popular track from the “Actual Life” series, “Marea,” reflects that “we’ve lost dancing,” Fred again.. has made it his mission to ensure we keep dancing in spite of our misfortune. 

Fred again..’s all-encompassing body of work to date is his DJ set at Boiler Room London, which includes new and unreleased solo and collaborative work spanning all sub-genres of house music and can be found on the Boiler Room YouTube channel. His first two solo albums, “Actual Life (April 14 – December 17 2020)” and “Actual Life 2 (February 2 – October 15 2021)” are available on all streaming platforms, with the third project in the “Actual Life” series set for release on Oct. 28 of this year.

Contact Brendan Nolte at bnolte2@nd.edu.

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J.I.D’s triumph over circumstance: ‘The Forever Story’

Since signing to J. Cole’s Dreamville Records in early 2017, Atlanta rapper J.I.D (real name Destin Choice Route) has built a name for himself not through the absurd style, vapid lyricism and obscene amounts of bass that defined the “Soundcloud rap” era in which he came up, but through a commitment to two things too often lost in modern hip-hop: honesty and craft. The rapper whose stage name originates from his grandma’s description of him as “jittery” has never lost that same restless swagger from when he was young, and J.I.D’s latest album “The Forever Story” puts on display his most vulnerable, cohesive and thoughtful work to date without losing sight of the hard-hitting beats and elaborate flows that put him on the map.

The opening track “Galaxy” almost directly reflects “Doo Wop,” the intro track to J.I.D’s first album, “The Never Story.” This immediately introduces one of the key themes of the album, which is the juxtaposition of where the rapper sees himself now — sitting atop or near the top of the metaphorical mountain that is the rap game — versus where he was when he first signed to Dreamville or even first started making music. While “The Never Story” served as a meditation on J.I.D’s life growing up in Atlanta and how the mindset of his youth still influences him in the present, “The Forever Story” represents a feeling of triumph over circumstance and an emphasis on who he is and has become.

The first five tracks after the intro are the “hits” of the album, including the two singles “Dance Now” and “Surround Sound,” with the latter featuring an expertly crafted Aretha Franklin sample not at all out-of-line with the themes of the album. “The Forever Story” is a celebration of what made J.I.D the man and artist he is today, and he uses both samples and features expertly to tie that together. Sampling the “queen of soul” along with somber reflection and singing on tracks like “Sistanem” and “Can’t Make U Change (ft. Ari Lennox)” demonstrate how his parents’ music has pervaded J.I.D’s own. Cutting in The Last Poets – a group largely responsible for the formation of hip-hop as a genre — to the beginning of “Raydar” and features from Lil Wayne and Yasiin Bey exemplify the appreciation J.I.D has for the origins of both his style and the genre as a whole.

The emotional core of “The Forever Story,” however, comes from the three-track run of “Kody Blu 31,” “Bruddanem” and “Sistanem.” “Bruddanem” and “Sistanem” delve into J.I.D’s sense of kinship and loyalty toward his brothers and sister, and the comparison of these feelings shows how uniquely important these different kinds of relationships are while still expressing the lessons his family has taught him. The cornerstone (or “feature presentation” as it’s described at the beginning of the track) of the record is “Kody Blu 31,” a memorial of sorts to J.I.D’s friend Kody who died when he was young. The chorus on this track melodically advises the listener to “swang on” in what seems to represent the central message of the album — a message which resonates deeply as a reflection on grief and what it means to keep living.

This record is so lyrically dense that there is no way anyone could explore all of the phenomenal work in both writing and delivery in one review. While there is an impressive verse or two on every song, the standout tracks in terms of lyrics were “Crack Sandwich,” an exploration of the chaotic yet tight relationship between J.I.D, his six siblings and his parents, and “2007,” the outro to the album which dropped as a music video a week prior and does not appear on Spotify due to clearance issues. It illustrates in both verse and voice memos the story of J.I.D’s life from 2007, when J. Cole dropped his first mixtape “The Come Up,” to 2017, when J.I.D signed to Dreamville Records and dropped his first album.

“The Forever Story” easily constitutes J.I.D’s best and most complete body of work to date and safely establishes him as a modern great alongside the likes of Kendrick Lamar and his mentor, J. Cole.

Artist: J.I.D

Album: “The Forever Story”

Label: Dreamville Records

Favorite Songs: “Crack Sandwich,” “Can’t Punk Me (feat. EARTHGANG)” and “2007”

If you like: Kendrick Lamar, EARTHGANG, Smino, Danny Brown

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

Brendan Nolte

Contact Brendan at bnolte2@nd.edu