When people began to associate dance music with social lowliness in the early ’90s, London clubs moved away from a night of dancing as their primary selling point, and instead touted a more atmospheric kind of electronic music that came to be known as intelligent dance music (IDM). One of the most prominent criticisms waged against the genre since then highlights the whiteness of its early creators. Thirty years in, Loraine James has become an unlikely champion of IDM—even though, as she notes, her music isn’t often categorized as such, because she’s a Black woman.
James’s discography at different times seems to speak to the various phases of IDM’s history, each of which moved the genre closer to the brash, danceable music it first reacted to, with the latest phase marking what music writer Simon Reynolds calls the assimilation of “the rudeboy spirit of rave itself.” On Building Something Beautiful for Me (2022), an album celebrating Black composer Julius Eastman, James seems to pay tribute to IDM’s ambient beginnings, whereas her 2019 album, For You and I, is in that quintessential hard-to-dance-to-but-still-quite-danceable IDM territory I associate most with second-wave IDM.
On Gentle Confrontation, released in September 2023, James edges her way toward the world of pop and other mainstream music like rap and R&B. Don’t get me wrong: if we’re in R&B territory, we’re in deconstructed R&B territory—you might hear the likes of Mhysa or Actress here too. This isn’t a vibrant hyperpop moment, not a total mirror of IDM’s recent reverse acceleration back into the spirit of the nightclub, but it does mark a version of James that seems both more playful and more adult at the same time.
The more-adult James we get on Gentle Confrontation is actually a tribute to her teenage self. As on For You and I, we return to her childhood home, the Alma Estate, to ruminate once again on James’s coming-of-age. This is the backdrop for the musician’s continued exploration of her queer sexuality, the death of her father at age seven, and her genesis as a musician. Gentle Confrontation also takes up the rhythmic inclinations of For You and I, and to great effect, but the overall sound is further developed in this later album because of the way it more deeply incorporates teenage Loraine’s influences—math rock and emo.
Some critics, like Tope Olufemi, recognize the “wonky time signatures and complex melodies” of math rock in James’s earlier work. But others struggle to hear any similarity to the emo bands she has always loved, such as American Football. It’s as if the eighth track on Gentle Confrontation, “One Way Ticket to the Midwest (Emo),” were a direct response to this. In an interview about a 2022 release under James’s other moniker, Under the Weather, music journalist Philip Sherburne said, “I have to admit that I don’t really hear any emo influence in the record!” “Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t,” responded James (in my mind, I can hear her sigh dejectedly). “But I’ve always been inspired by emo.”
Gentle Confrontation is James’s best album, too, because we see James make better use of her vocalists. While listening to “Déjà Vu,” I find myself thinking about what a great instrumentalist James is, even as featured vocalist RiTchie produces a sexy, low, and rumbling performance. James shows off how well she can complement a singer’s voice without overwhelming it. Throughout the album, James and her vocalists are in dynamic alignment. It’s Gentle Confrontation’s strength as a vocally oriented album that, in addition to making a contribution to the field of deconstructed R&B, should be read as a blueprint for IDMers who have a vested interest in stretching what “intelligent” sounds like.
All in all, fans of James will be delighted by Gentle Confrontation. Just make sure you have good equipment on hand for listening. James is working the middle and low frequencies in deliciously complex ways that you’ll miss out on without a proper set of speakers.
Record label: Hyperdub Similar artists: Tirzah, Squarepusher, Oli XL Representative lyric: “I want the ride, I don’t want to arrive.” Best track: “I DM U” Ideal listening conditions: Nighttime walk under baseball field lights