Album Review: Kryptonyte - S/T

The first thing that you hear is a tape hiss.

Kryptonyte, the debut album from a moderately  mysterious rap collective of the same name, released via the eclectic Dallas, Texas label Dolfin Records, seems like the kind of thing that is not of this time, or of this world.

The album is, more or less, the kind of homage that wears its inspiration proudly on its sleeve—the inspiration in question for Kryptonynte comes from another part of Texas—Houston, and specifically, the iconic ‘chopped and screwed’ sound that came out of the Houston underground rap scene in the early 1990s, putting the area’s innovative sound into the national consciousness thanks to mixes by DJ Screw and the early, unsettling efforts from Three 6 Mafia.

In less capable hands, Kryptonyte could come off as sounding uninspired and insincere in its emulation of this distinct sound and style—however, that is, thankfully, not the case. Unfolding over 11 tracks—two of which have come pre-drenched in a codeine drawl—the Kryptonyte collectives brings a youthful exuberance to a classic sonic landscape, firing off hypnotic phrasing, clever non sequiturs, and often violent and sexually graphic imagery, making for an unnerving, yet surprisingly alluring listening experience.

Kryptonyte, as a collective of three performers and one producer, seem like a somewhat unlikely group of collaborators. Both Lord Byron and Jade Fox (also known as Liv.e) are both, as solo artists, signees to Dolfin; Byron—born Byron Neal, has been putting out work for roughly six years, beginning with a more pensive, independent sound on his debut mixtape Dark Arts Vol. 2, before expanding with subsequent releases—his most recent, Sora, embraces a very synth heavy trap sound.

Live.e, or Jade Fox—born Olivia Williams, is, as a recent Bandcamp profile calls her, an ‘R&B Nomad,’ taking the blunted, soulful sounds of artists like Erykah Badu or D’Angelo and pushing them out to experimental places.

The third member of Kryptonyte is Livingston Matthews—the Los Angeles by way of Birmingham, Alabama singer and rapper who puts out a staggering amount of esoteric releases (from neo-soul to blistering, aggressive punk) as both iiye and Pink Siifu; the latter is how he is billed for his contributions to Kryptonyte.

Dolfin label head Ben Hixon is responsible for the album’s detail oriented production; at times, the atmosphere is so convincing and on point with that of the earliest mixtape material from Three 6 Mafia, it sounds like Kryptonyte was recorded onto a cassette tape 25 years ago using rudimentary equipment, and left to sit and slowly decay someplace, before being unearthed today.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of all—outside of how authentic of a sound this collective is able to assemble—is the affect the trio allows themselves to effortlessly embody. Outside of this context, I get the impression that Byron Neal, Olivia Williams, and Livingston Matthews would not normally write and produce music that depicts such explicit scenes of violence and sex—but here, as Kryptonyte, they’re free to explore these caricatures in order to stay true to the original tonality of the underground, mixtape rap circuit of Houston.

The first thing you hear is a tape hiss—then, an array of warbled and otherworldly synths come creeping in, along with a skittering hi-hat and snare, as the album’s infectious, slithering, and at times, ominous opening track, “Emmys,” begins.

Structurally, the tracks begin and end without little, if any, advance notice—with the end of one song colliding head first into the beginning of the next. Some of the material on Kryptonyte is a little less ominous than others—the two, short tracks that feature Williams as the only artist, “Ride With Jade,” and “All For My Wifey,” are some of the more lighthearted, musically speaking. The former is jaunty, as it bounces along to a hard-hitting bass drum and almost playful sounding keyboard samples; the latter is more soulful in a classic, 1970s sense of the word, powered by a deep rumbling bass line and electric guitar noodling.

These, of course, set the backdrop for Williams’ raunchy, sensualized lyrics—“Rubbin’ on her booty—man, her ass lookin’ hella fat,” is just one example, pulled out of “All For My Wifey.”

Elsewhere, at least on the album’s first nine tracks, a long, unsettling shadow is cast through the beats that Hixon has assembled. “Knock Knock” is structured around a repeated sequence of piano key tinkling that sounds like it was pulled directly from a 1980s horror movie; and one of the album’s finest songs, “Swang Lo,” is built with what sounds like a slowed down funk or R&B sample—a disembodied voice provides some muddled wordless singing, and the instrumentation of bass and guitar is stretched out enough so that it becomes cumbersome and clunky, while a frenetic hi-hat and snare from a drum machine pound out a rhythm for Matthews and Williams

Lyrically—Kryptonyte is dark. It harkens back to that spirit of the early 1990s where it does not so much glorify violence or degradation of women, but it finds itself steeped within that territory; that is, if you can even totally understand the lyrics at all. The album’s aesthetic is so warbled and distorted that, at times, it becomes very difficult to make out all of what is going on, though there are few things that are very clear like, I guess, what is more or less the conceit behind this whole thing, uttered by Neal on “L.I.A.B.”: “I can’t go to hell—I’m already in hell. And if I go to hell, reincarnation is real.” 

Right before this, though he laments that he has ‘pussy juice’ under his nails, and later in the song, proclaims he’s going to fuck a woman in the mouth, following that with, what I think is, “Mud on her tits from when we did it in the south.

Later, on the eerie, especially distorted and warbled “Jag,” pairing both Neal and Matthews, one of them, in an exaggerated, kind of creepy voice, lets a line fly about fucking a ‘bitch to death like a rag doll.”

But then, there are the blink and you miss them references to “Will and Grace” and “Saved by The Bell” that are thrown in—to lighten the mood ever so slightly. Much like the aesthetic that Kryptonyte has rooted itself in, this album is such a convincing impersonation of rap music from the early 1990s, that even age 35, this still gives me the feeling I used to get at age, like, 11 or 12, listening to Snoop Dogg or Dr. Dre cassettes with my Walkman so that my parents wouldn’t find out the extent of what I brought into the house. Kryptonyte makes for a nervous listening experience, no matter what age you may be.

The album concludes with perhaps its strangest, most discomforting moments—“Too Good,” and “Take Votes,” both of which are already slowed down to imitate the codeine drenched fog of DJ Screw’s 3 ‘N The Mornin’ mixes. Musically, they are among the most fascinating of the bunch—especially the clunky bass line and time stretched synths of “Too Good”—and both find Matthews and Neal, respectively, sounding both urgent, and extraordinarily terrifying.

Right down to its ‘pen and pixel’ inspired cover art, Kryptonyte is a blast from the past, but it still has a foot in the present and is edging it into the future. It’s a bizarre, yet ultimately compelling listen—and that kind of sharp juxtaposition is the point. You can enjoy it, but it will more than likely make you uneasy the entire time.

Kryptonyte is out now, as a digital download, from Dolfin Records; occasionally, the group offers limited runs of t-shirts with the album's amazing cover art printed on the front.