Sam Baker's career has followed a slowly unfolding path, marked by consistency, a patient evolution, and a talent for always delivering the goods. Working under the Samiyam moniker, the Ann Arbor–born producer first sprang onto the scene via 2008's Return EP, four tracks of thick synths, subtly abstracted head-nod rhythms, fragmented melodies, and spare, occasionally glitchy rhythms, released in the post Donuts mini-boom of downtempo creativity. A series of long-playing releases followed—Rap Beats Vol. 1 (originally self-released but later finding a home on early backer Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder), 2011's Sam Baker's Album (also on Brainfeeder) and 2013's Wish You Were Here (on the Leaving Records imprint)—all imbued with varying degrees of sonic experimentalism, and all great. But through it all, it seems like Baker's felt a bit misunderstood—despite the lysergic glow that occasionally tints his music, and despite the FlyLo/Brainfeeder connection, the man's always had something a bit more down-to-earth in mind. “I’m not about futuristic spaceship beats," he said in a 2013 interview upon the release of Wish You Were Here, "just straightforward hip-hop.”
It's going to be a battle (one reviewer tagged him as a "tape-warping…surrealist"), but it seems that Baker's going to do his best to prove the truth of that mission statement. A hint came last year, when the subdued slow-jam beauty "Quest/Power," coproduced with Budgie and featuring Earl Sweatshirt on vocals, dropped on SoundCloud. And now there's his latest full-length Animals Have Feelings, released on the mighty Stones Throw label. A series of 21 short tracks, most well under three minutes, Animals Have Feelings still has its share of slightly glitchy moments and odd juxtapositions, but it might be Baker's most directly "hip-hop" collection to date. There's not a lot of raps on the album—Baker's always been primarily an instrumental artist, and Animals Have Feelings only features three vocal cuts (more on them in a bit)—but the LP just feels hip-hop, in a way that's hard to pin down. (It plays something like a mixtape, perhaps even more than Wish You Were Here, which actually was originally released on cassette.)
Baker's hip-hop is a particular creative version of the form, of course. Over the album's 22 tracks—most of which clock in at under three minutes and all but three of which are instrumentals—he explores the Samiyam sound to the fullest, perfecting the style he's always had rather than making any major alterations. As if to hammer home that point, the album's opener, "Taco Chase," opens with a slightly effected spoken word: "And that's what it is today—ain't nothin' changed," perhaps referencing Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's "Ain't Nothin Changed (Everyday Thang Part 2)." The cut itself, like much of Animals have Feelings, is as much mood piece as song, with eerie organ tones and a spare bassline anchored by hairline-fracture beats. That's followed by "Blowed," a kind of G-funk/carnival-from-hell number, which leads into "Calisthenics," characterized by something that sounds like hammered piano strings plucking it its simple melody. Later, the title track boasts staccato synths chords played over one of the best sounding snare hits we've heard in a while; the pastoral "Smoke Break" samples gentle strings that float over a spare synth-bass; and "Turkish Vacation," perhaps the goofiest tune on the LP, is pretty much like the title implies.
If there's one complaint, it's one that's common to instrumental hip-hop: Some tracks are almost a bit too single-minded, with Baker often content to simply let two or three ideas to ride throughout the cut without much in the way of dynamics. Then again, when a songs is as the spectral guitar-and-bass funk tune "Meditate," all of 66 seconds long, there isn't a hell of a lot of time for anything overly complex. The most fully fleshed-out tracks are its vocal numbers. "Lord of the Rings," with Jeremiah Jae and Oliver the 2nd on the mike, layers the lyrics over sci-fi synths and plucked arpeggio; the Action Bronson–led "Mr. Wonderful" (somewhat confusingly, its a track not found on Bronson's album of the same name), sputters and glides to hypnotic effect; and Earl Sweatshirt returns for the psyche-hop-gets-tough track "Mirror." Straightforward hip-hop? Not quite—the weirdness quotient of Animals Have Feelings is a bit too high for that—but it's hip-hop nonetheless, and another success for Samiyam.