A Sufi and a Killer

(Warp; 2010)

By Chris Molnar | 12 May 2010

At the quarterly CMG meeting (free bagels; BYOB) about 2010’s Top Ten thus far, perhaps the most-cited name that remained unclaimed as far as shouldering it through the critical mill still stood tall: Gonjasufi. And really, how do you begin to tackle somebody heading down uncomfortably new paths? Although he’s got the avant-rap credentials prequalifying his every move—came to notice on a Flying Lotus track, cousin of Butterfly from the supremely cool Shabazz Palace—there is something disconnected, scene-wise, about A Sufi and A Killer. In the least hyperbolic sense, the record boasts a style with no father, as jarring as it is inviting, a combination of Gaslamp Killer’s ominously mellow collages and Gonja’s distorted sing-song lilt. (In the most hyperbolic sense, it is made of everything.)

While much attention has been spent on his falsetto proverbs, the secret to the record’s success is really Gaslamp Killer’s complimentary production, playing perhaps the Primo to Gonja’s Guru (RIP). As much kin to Third (2008)-era Portishead as to Edan’s crate-digging or FlyLo’s free electro, Gaslamp Killer’s synths and samples match the vocals distortion for distortion, often lapsing into ambience but always returning with a left-field surprise. These borrowed melodies, like the na-na-na-na female vocals on “Sheep” or the funk creep of “Candylane,” carry the album ever forward through Gonjasufi’s musings on the histories of words, people, and their relationships. The phasing, cosmos-addled guitar of “Duet” is emblematic of such simply executed variety, a hypnotic bedrock for Gonja’s MJ-ish exclamations, Walk Hard punning, and dark come-ons (“please underline me,” he half-croons, as sexy as it is unnerving).

Not to sell the lyrics short, though—even the simple Nuggets rockers “She Gone” and “I’ve Given” transcend their basic lost-girl themes with his restrained plaintiveness, and the obvious sage-isms of “Advice” and “Ageing” (“once a man, twice a child”—dig) work more subtly throughout. While they may not always go for knockout punches, the aphoristic tone of his words transforms the record’s overt 60s world/soul/garage feel into something floating, stepping out of linear sound references into a Gonja-centric world, hazily black and white but with flashes of brilliant color.

Perhaps this hazily elemental nature has as much to do with the un-write-uppable-ish-ness of A Sufi and A Killer as does its overall novelty. There may be more pop structure and less willful wandering than, say, cLOUDDEAD, but there is still something strictly subconscious about the album at its most gripping, even as it consistently engages over repeat visits. Gonjasufi has a strong persona—a kind of Socratic soul-man, maybe, or bored battle-rapper—but the philosophical disconnect that fuels his observations refuses any emotional flashpoints that would otherwise make for ostensible entries into the rest of his world. And while this is central to his allure—turning the bemused, melancholic wordplay of a song like “Made” (“It’s may…day / Finally made”) into something epic—it holds the listener at a slight, unbridgeable distance. If he someday breaks through (into the mainstream; into our un-stymied hearts) it’ll be a dramatic way to contextualize it all. If he never does, Gonjasufi will just stay a mystery, an improbable purveyor of restraint and deeply layered, engrossing feeling.

:: myspace.com/gonjasufi