Jason Feathers’ De Oro is the result of an unlikely collaboration between Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon and rapper Astronautalis. The origins of the album are unclear, with the (limited) sources online crediting various contributors such as Creflo, a “red-chested god-bassed Southern rapper in a fancy white suit”, and Toothpick, “a former high school geometry teacher gone bad”. The group reportedly met in a bar one humid July evening, where Florida meets Alabama, in a place called De Oro. De Oro is the record of this event.
The shady and speculative Southern origins – of outcasts, cowboys, and Satan – add to the atmosphere of the album. There is omniscience in the deep, Southern drawl of Creflo/Astronautalis, and heavy religious imagery in the lyrics. Combined with the characteristic ability of Justin Vernon to create a powerful and awe-inspiring atmosphere means the results are sublime. Creflo/Astronautalis takes on an omnipotence characteristic of Kanye, but the album is far from feeling like an exploitation of the ego. A more intelligent, dark element runs through the entire album – in fact, tracks such as ‘Young As Fuck’ left me slightly convinced Vernon had sold his soul to Satan on one of those dusty Southern crossroads.
Opening track ‘Leave Your Stain’ was great is a strong opener, the rolling drums rreminiscent of thunder and the intense presence of Creflo/Astronautalis reminiscent of Kanye’s ‘Black Skinhead. Lines “I wanna feel your pain, I wanna make it rain” are howled in a way that reflected the lone wolf characteristic of Vernon, and will be loved by Bon Iver fans. The dark, experimental electronics emphasize the howls, making for a powerful number.
‘Courtyard Marriot’ feels so good you’ll want to get drunk; Heavy in religious imagery and cryptic lyrically, it is as if an omnipotent God of the natural world is speaking. It’s an upbeat, eclectic, multi-dimensional explosion of instruments with thought provoking lyrics lliberating the listener like a cowboy riding a horse across a desert.
Vernon is usually minimalistic in the way he creates moods, but this album is an explosion in experiments with sound. The result is hugely atmospheric, and should not disappoint Bon Iver fans that love Justin Vernon for his ability to evoke a powerful ambiance. For those who love intelligent rap, the lyrics should also impress. The words are poetic in imagery, dark, prophet-like and, at times, humorous. ‘Hot Forever’ is concluded by an expression of love for a girl despite her herpes, and the feel of the track is like a galactic desert full of aliens and bloods and Crips with a cool Mexican guitar riff.
For someone who isn’t a massive rap fan, however, the ambiguous lyrics may have become a bit repetitive by the time ‘Sacred Math’ comes on. The track gets progressively more reflective, ending in a quiet and minimalist piano instrumental reflective of Bon Iver, sounding like rain drops on an ocean after a thunder storm, and quietly creating an atmosphere for reflection where the depth and meaning of the track resonate.
Following ‘Sacred Math’, ‘Cyclone’ begins as a continuation (with the piano water droplets) followed by ominous sounds like a ripping tide or blade of knife. On initial listening, it overwhelms with a sense of power. ‘De Oro’ juxtaposes Bon Iver where the music represents a powerful but simply beautiful depiction of nature; in contrast, De Oro would be nature in all its sublimity – dark, awful, powerful, bloody, threatening, enlightening, liberated.
As a whole, De Oro is a wonderful album. It is quiet in its intelligence and awe-inspiring in its experimentations, marking a departure for Justin Vernon from the acoustic preoccupations of Bon Iver, and moving him in to a status that is more sophisticated, innovative, and multi-faceted. If you look at the album simply as a rap album, it is equally impressive, with bars paralleled to Aesop Rock and Tyler the Creator. The album undermines the commercial and feels like a powerful and intelligent rebellion from what Bon Iver or Kanye West fans would normally associate with Justin Vernon.
De Oro is released digitally on 19th August and physically in September.