Jlin's 'Akoma' Is a Mind-Scrambling Masterpiece

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Mar 21, 2024


When Jlin released Black Origami in 2017, the Gary, Indiana producer must have known what she had on her hands. Her sophomore album's exhilarating, futuristic and entirely organic approach to electronic music was inviting but uncompromising, a singular work that rightfully established Jlin as a formidable artist with an eye on new horizons. Now, seven years after the release of that remarkable album comes Akoma, her third masterful full-length in an already impressive discography.

Bouncy, glitchy opener "Borealis" ostensibly features Björk, but the disassociated vocals and double-time breaks make the track sound more like a remix or a reimagining of a Björk solo track than a collaboration. The Icelandic artist's signature and recognizable voice is broken down and recontextualized, as if heard from faraway, careening off the walls of a dream. It's an audacious start, one that denies listener expectations without being patronizing. It knows what you want, but you're just gonna have to work a little harder to get it.

While Jlin is known as an electronic artist whose work is often — and tediously — categorized as footwork, on Akoma, her electronic proclivities blend with elements of jazz, trap, modern classical and minimalist music to form a danceable yet caustic whole. Whether composing for dance troupes, percussion ensembles or museums, she's clearly embraced the influence of contemporary classical musical, infusing it with her own pulsing, computational edge. In particular, her collaboration with Third Coast Percussion has left a decidedly rhythmic mark on her compositional approach, and her use of syncopation, polyrhythm, rapid fire rolls and unwavering beats is most obviously felt on two back-to-back drum-forward tracks, "Eye Am" and the fill-heavy "Challenge (To Be Continued II)."

Having worked with the likes of Holly Herndon and William Basinski on Black Origami, as well as the late SOPHIE, Jlin continues her impressive run of collaborations on Akoma, which features the aforementioned Björk, as well as Philip Glass ("The Precision of Infinity"), and the Kronos Quartet ("Sodalite"). "Sodalite" is particularly chopped and screwed, the track's clanging drums matching the controlled yet splintered counterpoint of the Quartet.

Kronos's sinister influence can also be heard on album highlight "Summon." With its creeping strings and disjointed drums, the jittery track is positively disturbing, the perfect soundtrack for the opening credits of a Hitchcockian art-house slasher. Its stabbing violins and cellos are reminiscent of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, yet even though it's jarring and dissonant, the arrangement — replete with repetition and a steadfast rhythm — quickly becomes familiar, almost protective, a sharp embrace that lulls you into a false sense of uneven security.

"Grannie's Cherry Pie," the album's penultimate track, is charming, even wistful, an unapologetically happy piece compared to some of the more aggressive and unsettling songs that precede it. It bounces along on a shimmering keyboard line that wants to sustain and repeat yet is always undermined by unexpected stops and starts. Late in the track, Jlin finally lets these notes ring, holding them in long, relieved strokes through the song's conclusion.

The unsurprisingly powerful finale, "The Precision of Infinity," features the simple structures and repeated piano phrases that have become intimately associated with Glass, yet once again Jlin fractures these lines, sometimes letting them play out and sometimes withholding satisfaction, adding a sense of playful denial. The song is an Altmanesque dialogue, with sounds, rhythms, genres, even entire musical histories overlapping and melding. It's overwhelming and beautiful, meditative and pounding, tense and frightening and euphoric, and it serves as an apt metaphor for Akoma's unapologetic melding of digital and analogue approaches and soundscapes.

Jlin's music can move trained dancers on stage and ring through the halls of hallowed institutions and academies, but it's also meant for dark clubs, sprawling concert venues and dusty festival fields. It's simultaneously experimental and accessible, as much for the chin scratchers as the breakdancers. Akoma is repetitive and evolving, forever demanding your attention and involvement. Jlin wants you to move, to think, and to see music as a phenomenon imbued with contradictions. Like all of her best work, Akoma is heavy, mysterious and boundless. This is Jlin's world; we're just lucky enough to listen in.

(Planet Mu)

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