Most of Kingdom's brightest moments involve the artist embracing his love for vocal hooks. Like most of his contemporaries on the Night Slugs and Fade To Mind labels, Los Angeles-based Ezra Rubin hybridizes everything from grime to ballroom house, but it's on R&B-infused tracks like "Take Me," with singer Naomi Allen, or "Mind Reader," with Shyvonne, that his sound truly comes into its own. Vertical XL, the latest EP from Kingdom and his first proper release since 2011's Dreama EP, continues that trend, presenting quality instrumentals that nonetheless get outshined by a giant vocal track.
The record is solid overall, but it should really be named after its towering opener with vocalist Kelela, "Bank Head." Although she appeared on Teengirl Fantasy's "EFX" single from last year's Tracer and has a mixtape on the way for Fade to Mind, Kelela's contribution to Vertical XL sounds like her first serious arrival. Rubin lets her silvery vocals sit front and center in his mix, the arrangement giving her simultaneously bold and vulnerable performance plenty of space. It's a total earworm, but one that is airily, gesturally constructed—picking up when Kelela's voice dictates it should, and floating pensively otherwise.
Somewhat unfortunately, "Bank Head" overshadows Rubin's other tracks so much that they almost come across as forgettable in comparison. "Zip Line" offers a redux of themes from "Bank Head," while the dystopian "Corpse" moves with a sputtering stumble, laced with an imposing chime and interplaying stabs. "Viper Lash" begins in a similar state of darkness, but opens up into chords reminiscent of '90s ambient techno (or even the aforementioned Teengirl Fantasy). After the sparse, pitched-up funk of "Takedown Notice," "Viper XL" finds Rubin closing his EP in euphoric dancefloor territory. It's practically all climb, led by optimistic synths that quash the prior tracks' sense of indecision. Solidly composed as these later pieces may be, Vertical XL is worth the price of admission for "Bank Head" alone.