Sbtrkt: The Rat Road

When SBTRKT recently returned to the public eye after a six-year absence, it wasn’t with a bang so much as a groan. The groggy, distorted vocal of 2022’s “Bodmin Moor” suggested an artist waking from a coma, cotton-mouthed and baffled by the world around him. Eleven months later, a similarly uncommercial questing spirit hangs heavily over The Rat Road, SBTRKT’s sprawling and abstruse fourth album.

SBTRKT—real name Aaron Jerome—may have ditched his trademark mask sometime around the middle of the 2010s. But, as on his 2011 self-titled debut and 2014’s Wonder Where We Land, he remains content to sit in the shadows on The Rat Road, ceding the spotlight to a stream of featured vocalists, including serial collaborator Sampha. His production remains similarly varied, with the house/UK garage/electro/R&B/broken beat/hip-hop stew of his first two albums oozing ever outward to take in techno, drum’n’bass, classical, jazz and more.

“More” appears to be the album’s guiding principle: twenty-two songs (whittled down from 400), 10 special guests, numerous beat switches, and enough genres to give a Spotify playlister cause for a lie-down. The single “L.F.O.” alone features two vocalists and three distinct sections and bears the influence of everything from Detroit techno to samba. The only way in is to embrace the chaos: Maybe it doesn't make sense that the frenetically unstable “You Broke My Heart but Imma Fix It” is followed by the refracted, beat-free wash of “Palm Reader,” or that the production on “Demons” constantly threatens to slip under a sea of reverb. But it does make for a lot of fun, albeit of the slightly exhausting, long-day-at-Disneyland type. Doing all this and starting a largely electronic album with “Remnant,” 90 seconds of bittersweet orchestral soundtrack, is pure mischievous flex.

This roguish spirit is matched by a long-standing gift for finding and nurturing new talent. In 2011 SBTRKT gave early appearances to Sampha and Jessie Ware; in 2023 London singer LEILAH, who has just one solo single to her name, lights up The Rat Road on songs like “Forward,” her voice drifting around gorgeously dejected melodies like the fluttering petals on a rainy spring day, while poet Kai-Isaiah Jamal’s Tricky-esque growl is chillingly eloquent on the nerve-busting “Coppa.” At times, the closest point of comparison for The Rat Road’s heavily-guested, pan-genre sprawl is Gorillaz, with the electro-pop soul of a song like “No Intention” a kissing cousin to the more reflective moments of Damon Albarn’s merry bunch (think “Empire Ants”). But unlike Gorillaz, who have Albarn’s peerless voice as a connecting thread, SBTRKT’s retiring presence works against him. You’d recognise a Gorillaz track on a blind listen, but what makes SBTRKT SBTRKT, particularly in a world where multiple guest vocalists and stylistic shifts are simply what pop does?

How much this matters depends on your expectations. As an artist album, The Rat Road is too self-effacing, an avalanche of great ideas in search of a vision. As a producer album, The Rat Road is frequently stunning. “L.F.O.” combines what sounds like a randomly generated system of electronic tones with a sensuous back-and-forth between vocalists Sampha and George Riley and somehow makes it work, like a one-in-a-million alchemy of clashing browser windows. “Days Go By” immerses Toro y Moi’s vocal in an unsettling but inventive patchwork of effects, sending his voice aflutter on mechanical wings; and “Limitless” does an excellent impression of a Frank Ocean song collapsing in on itself under intense sunlight. SBTRKT also has the melodic skills to match his production chops, from the poignant, inquisitive chord sequence that beckons in drum’n’bass number “You, Love” to the cycling synths of “No Intention.” That song, in particular, is proof that SBTRKT can produce satisfyingly cutting-edge pop music when he puts his hand to it.

Ultimately, it’s hard to decide whether The Rat Road’s structured chaos has obscured SBTRKT’s musical personality, or whether all this disorder is simply who SBTRKT is. Could Jerome reveal a little more of himself on record? Or is he already showing himself to us? The Rat Road offers no easy answers and—frankly—not all that much easy listening. But if you’re looking for a sometimes baffling yet often entertaining adventure, The Rat Road delivers.