Seven Davis Jr ‘Universes’ (Ninja Tune)

A funk-filled debut from the new kid on the Ninja Tune block

From the chilled output of label founders Coldcut to the revolutionary rap of Roots Manuva and Young Fathers, there’s always an element of funk at play on Ninja Tune releases. But the debut album by Houston-born Seven Davis Jr goes way beyond an element of funk. Funk, in its most literal form, is at the very core of this often downright irresistible offering.

Davis, if that’s the correct abbreviation, was raised on Prince and Stevie Wonder. And it shows – in the bump and grind of every groove he’s produced and the deep vocals he lavishes on top. But he also cut his music making skills in the defiantly left-field skool of LA electronica, meaning that this is anything but a traditional take on the f-word. In fact, ‘Universes’ straddles genres with nonchalant ease, from eccentric-sounding soulful house to hip hop beats given the same quirky, non-puritan reinvention that Luke Vibert specialises in. The results may not slip easily into one category or another, but they certainly have a distinctive, unifying flavour from start to finish.

The album opens up with a wonky, skeletal beat, a super-brief introduction called ‘Imagination’, so it’s track two that kicks off proceedings in earnest. ‘Freedom’ swirls with synth bells and spiralling arpeggios, before a shuffling breakbeat enters to drive it along, giving it the air of a classic 69-era Carl Craig production remade by a vintage period Shut Up & Dance.

‘Sunday Morning’ sees the first appearance of Davis’ distinctive voice and on the surface it seems more conventional, propelled by some Prince-like guitar flicking and a looping vocal refrain: “Bet you never had a love like this before”. It doesn’t play by the well-worn rules of house music, though, jumping sections where you least expect it, stopping and starting and adding a wonderfully bonkers synth solo that is both disorientating and thoroughly enjoyable. ‘Everybody Too Cool’, with its falsetto vocals and backing harmonies, has the hallmark of a Parliament or Funkadelic extravaganza, only hitched to a thudding rock beat and still retaining a chaotic vibe.

‘Good Vibes’, an unashamedly exhilarating house workout featuring guest singer Julio Bashmore, is probably the clearest candidate here for summer anthem status. It will no doubt be compared to Daft Punk, but the more clued-up among you will notice it has more in common with the knocked-up spontaneity of ‘Spinal Scratch’ or a host of other Thomas Bangalter solo efforts. The album’s true centrepiece, however, is ‘Fighters’, its production stripped down to the barest elements – a single snare, the tiniest of grooves, ultra sparse instrumentation – to give Davis the space to deliver a heartfelt vocal performance apparently ruminating on the recent racial violence sweeping parts of America.

Combining unlikely influences and spanning a plethora of moods, ‘Universes’ is definitely ambitious enough to deserve its interstellar title. An accomplished debut for sure, fans of all things maverick and rule breaking should watch this space with interest.

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