Nick Hakim | WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD | ATO Records

Review: Nick Hakim – WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD

National Music Reviews

Nick Hakim

ATO Records
Street: 05.15
Nick Hakim = Marvin Gaye + Anderson .Paak + Silk Rhodes

Brooklyn-based singer Nick Hakim has described the songs he makes as self-portraits. If Hakim’s new album, WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD, was a solo painting exhibition instead of a collection of 12 tracks, these self-portraits would be a unified series, consisting of dark, shadowy tones, intricate brushstrokes and intensely vulnerable images. As songs, these portraits are soulful, but not exactly in the joyous sense of the word. The glue that holds the album together is Hakim’s willingness to display his own pain via genre-blending innovation and gravely personal songwriting. It is fitting that only one single has been released prior to the full album. These tracks aren’t really meant to be broken apart. They’re raw and especially impactful as a complete beginning-to-end listen.

The opening track, “ALL THESE CHANGES,” immediately establishes a haunting feeling that persists throughout the album. Hakim begins harmonizing with a ghostly synth melody, re-introducing the vocal reverb that he has leaned on for the bulk of his body of work. “Everything comes to an end,” Hakim aggressively sings, just before the primary melody fades away and a detuned piano takes over hopelessly. The lyrical subject matter is perfectly matched with this afflicted tonality.

This artful cohesion between lyrics and music is the greatest virtue of WILL THIS MAKES ME GOOD. Hakim is able to say as much with his instrumental arrangements as he does with his words, a skill that elevates the power of each song. During the track’s final moments, Hakim softly croons about the “growing pains” that result from unwanted and involuntary change. His refrain of “hope is fading” interplays with the piano, as if Hakim is having a conversation with himself. An emotional experience of devastation is made vividly obvious, while the context of this feeling is left vague and obscure. On WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD, Hakim manages to leave out any real focus on “what happened,” instead diving deeply into “this is how it felt.”

Many of the tracks are made up of loosely-connected segments, blurring the line between “song” and “interlude” and identifying the entire album as one long, spontaneous downpour, rather than a group of autonomous entities. “WTMMG” is one of the few tracks with a somewhat traditional song structure. A downtempo, boom-bap drum beat takes over in the opening moments and doesn’t let up. On top of this, Hakim uses his signature layering of reverb-laden vocals to complement a funky guitar groove. “Will this shit make us good? / What will it take to make us good?” he sings, referencing the album’s title, which also seems to be the whole work’s central question. Once again, it’s fiercely expressive without many narrative details. While “ALL THESE CHANGES” is a portrait of devastation, “WTMMG” captures an image of confusion and deception.

Hakim has the ability to cut up the genres that influence him, utilizing specific elements of their sound and leaving the rest out. Through this process of musical gene-splicing, he is able to create something that is simultaneously old and new. There are moments of funk, yet somehow, the uplifting and danceable energy that usually defines the style is nowhere to be found. On “BOUNCING,” organ chords combine with vocal hymns, and the presence of gospel is palpable. However, the trademark hopefulness of gospel music is completely absent. While the hymn repeats the lyrics “All these lonely strangers marching through the snowstorm / Trying to find some peace,” the organ falls apart into static-filled screeches, like a radio struggling to lock on to a clear channel. It’s both a disconcerting and moving listen.

When listening to these songs in succession, the number of different featured instruments the listener hears never stops piling up. “ALL THESE INSTRUMENTS” contains the self-referencing lyric, “All these instruments around have strange powers,” while hand percussion, acoustic guitar and sporadic synthesizer jabs combine and provide evidence for this piece of self-aware songwriting. 

“DRUM THING” revolves around a lackadaisical drum machine that sounds as if it was dusted off, turned on and left alone in a corner with dying batteries, all while Hakim hung out and improvised lyrics in the vocal booth. The mix is simple, yet emotionally affecting once again. As a composer, Hakim seems to care most that his output is gripping, and he never bothers to explain too much, allowing listeners to explore their own reactions to the vibes that he conjures.

As a bundle of self-portraits, WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD is rough, gloomy and not always easy to listen to. This album is a potent act of exploring the inner life, and it joins other great self-portraits like Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait (1889) or Egon Schiele’s Self-Portrait As Prisoner in the category of expressions of raw pleading. Hakim’s fourth LP is a take-it-or-leave-it view into his own unsorted darkness and is available now on Bandcamp and on vinyl. –Austin Beck-Doss