If the saccharine density of American pop music is indeed always in direct correlation to our collective state of peril, as strongly suggested by the insightful research of eminent musicologists like the trailblazing Nate Sloan at USC’s esteemed Thornton School of Music, then TikTok breakout wunderkind Curtis Waters is the engineered pax enzyme created by that pocket of we hostage witnesses that are sick of being sugar-drunk, but don’t relish hard vinegar to wash down our absent alacrity with either. Human truths, when starkly told, are usually more poteen than dudeen after all, are they not? So, drink up, says the mizzled message of Waters’ debut full-length release entitled Pity Party, licensed through BMG and put out on his own label.
Pity Party is an album flipping two high-held birds at emotional nyctinasty, opting instead to open its petals ever the wider the darker things get. Needing no Gram-worthy cryptonym, and calling himself exactly what he is on every possible level, Curtis Waters swaps entirely on his own freewill vulnerability. This is the comestible trait we so need right now in any star of sound or screen, particularly one like Waters who can wield it in a way as instantly compelling as any Armalite or ballot box. Influenced heavily by the innovational mixed-breed likes of Kanye West, Tyler the Creator, Odd Future, Michael Cera, and Bollywood in general, he is a heteroglossic answer to all that is pale and stale in pop culture at the moment.
Curtis Waters brings you his viselike, almost Viennese sensibilities and duskier malt via North Carolina by way of Nepal – but not before protracted pit stops in both Germany and Calgary, Alberta that make amorphous, scent-like appearances akin to ale on breath or smoke in hair within the lyrical references of Pity Party. He is an obvious apparatchik of all things world-wise and anodyne. Having also made no secret of his struggles with bipolarity – and pointedly making no distempered market ploy or big thing of them either – Waters has asserted that his music represents a kind of cathartic, syntho-convulsive succor he conducts largely for the betterment of his own mind.
At a fortune-hunting 20 years old, comparing Curtis Waters to other performers his age gets you nothing but chalk and cheese. In the wide shot, he may at times outwardly exhibit the maille and plate of his era – namely the mercenary logic and the snowy cobbles of ardent socialism – but he is clearly attuned to his own Akashic records in a way not currently public anyplace else in the enjoined chumocracy that dictates so much of what his age-peers would be doing with the same set of life experiences to work with. He is to be highly commended for tossing multiple million-dollar deals from labels galore into the proverbial Bosporus in favor of continuing to work at the Tropical Smoothie near his family home, retaining the rights to his own songs, and insisting on eking it out the right way for himself. A few full listens to Pity Party and you will know that years he has not yet lived have already spun by in Curtis Waters’ head and he is even now successfully making creative cullies out of them, timing his own overture like an artist and not a product.
Waters wrote, produced, performed, and mixed every province of Pity Party as a response to a low point in his life wherein he had dropped out of college and was tussling with his mental health issues. This, in and of itself, should announce his blazing difference from most people in his age bracket who are famously fond of wallowing in their whalebone and horsehair with as much unproductive self-interest as can be mustered. Gen Z, as an aggregate, tends to sport a hard time keeping attention away from how much they want attention whilst they furiously busy themselves pretending not to care about anything that actually requires their full attention. Lost in the social contagion of their treacly imaging modalities, they leap from online escarpments not an inch off the ground, scimitars in hand, claiming to all who will hear that they have scaled Everest alone. Worse yet, they believe their own tales, the natural sequelae of which usually amounts to a self-built prison of convulsive boredom mixed with rage.
Waters does not cadge like that on Pity Party. He has not positioned his brief stay in a real mental hospital as some sort of splitting-the-atom brinkmanship, nor does he pretend to sluice from it his still-tenuous ideas of his own self-worth. He is self-deprecating rather than self-loathing. He is also charming, magnetic, and even shy. Often adorned with chandelier earrings glittering against attire that is otherwise wholly ‘afterthought’ in nature, he is that endearing brand of self-conscious, without ever being self-aware – a thing gloriously refreshing to behold when most his age peddle trendy self-hate like old school door-to-door Bible salesmen, and wear the snake-oil uniforms to match.
Curtis Waters is the kind of young guy that you can see earnestly searching out the answer to why milkshakes in Rhode Island are referred to as “cabinets” while he is simultaneously in the midst of expertly crafting a trip-hop rap about the Rape of Nanjing massacre and fervently trying to figure out what rhymes with “soppressata.” These innately dorktastic qualities of his, among many others, are factors contributing to the plain out yumminess and specialty of Pity Party.
In a word, the kid is visibly smart. Real-life smart, not internet smart – thanks much. On balance, Waters anoints himself a standard freak, wears it proudly like an Apollo knot atop his head, and through this radiodiagnostic camel clutch of honesty has affected that most velvet of all jailbreaks from his own peer group: pulling himself fully out while still being accepted by those that will forever be in. This translates to pure money, folks – and there you have the transitarium of deserved fame in 2020.
Though every moment of this album is blooming with bruises, to his enormous credit Waters does not invite you to call their purples beautiful, pay them extravagant court, or bashfully beg for drams of lies telling him they are all inevitably useful to him. This is a highly computerized bedroom album, and perhaps the first that has the courage to be circumspect about the real reasons why it has been made in a bedroom. This writer has nothing but the utmost respect for a man of any age that recognizes that sometimes things just suck for suckage’s sake – there is no silver lining. That takes a great deal more acute antennation to say out loud than any of your tonier bollocks about, “Everything happening for a reason.”
Downbeat and sometimes even downtrodden, Pity Party is a total weekend record, carrying the cytokinetic sounds of familiar, bright Saturday afternoons when you don’t really have any plans yet but you suspect something providential could happen later and you are eagerly twisting the hopes draped round your own neck like the chatelaine chain they always are. This whole record is full of that electric possibility in the air, tempered with a switched-on alertness to the reality that it could all go arseways just as swiftly too, and for just as many unforeseen reasons.
Each song here is an individual agar plate on which Waters is performing bold auscultation on his own doubts and vacillations for the stated purpose of creating an audio anxiolytic that could hopefully render such deed poll surgery unnecessary for any listener, and eventually for himself too. Waters acquits himself like a vocal vigneron, in a Weezy-soaked, somewhat Drake-doused spoken word style of singing that still manages to sound satrapal and discerning.
Run-after favorites like “Freckles” and “System” are but the macadam paving your way to quiet heroes like “Better”, which features cartoon-like bubbles of beat matching a hiccupped vox perlage that will live in your ears for days, rent-free. It doesn’t hurt that “Better” is also a shameless and sidelong paean written to call back a lost love and disaffectedly embodies that delusional dream we have all had that someone who has left us will wake up to our abortive affections one day. Waters, unlike most of us, does not decorate his wish: “You’ll love me / I have rehearsed it.”
If you are a fan of the unfading Jem and the Holograms, you will be pleased to learn that every single track on Pity Party begins with a Synergy-like disembodied voice saying “Good job, Curtis!” in various hilariously macassared tones. It’s the howdy-skelp that wakes up the song to its finial purpose and personality. It also seems to function for Waters much like the old tradition/superstition of saying “rabbit, rabbit” on the first of every month to bait good luck for the next 30ish days – or three-ish minutes in this case.
“Lobby Boy” (featuring Harm Franklin) needs that luck because it dares to tackle that hogshead of a mind game where all of your stored-up courage finally comes to square off with your crush and suddenly just goes, “I gotta mambo!” in the most crucial face-to-face moments. It’s a song about how, then, all of the attenuated pauses in between that blown rose of a moment and the next time you drunk-text that person come to mean so much more than they probably should – “I only call you when I’m high / I never hit you when I’m sober” – the lyrical indictment meant to serve as both confession and further coverup.
“Subaru” is an oxycontin of a song wherein you can most readily recognize how Waters has so deftly captured the stakes for his hypernumbed generation: “I’m in the back of the car / I feel like I might die alone.” Meanwhile and in other news of prescription drugs, “6pills” half-mocks the whole imperiled and injurious teenage scene with the shirred refrain, “Ha ha ha ha I was never normal,” and ends with an abrupt, self-addressed, “Shut up.”
In the recently released single “Shoe Laces”, Waters lets fly a volley of conjectures about the state of the world he lives in and his control over his place in it, utilizing the titular shoe laces alternately as helpmate to death or the doldrums ahead, depending on his mood. Disposable lines like, “Her beauty comes from within / But my interior’s rotten” showcase his knack for turning the fraying nooses of self-examination into Sashiko stitching just strong enough to gird him for another day.
Though the closing track “Stunnin’” (featuring Harm Franklin) was indeed TikTok-born and would likely be the first and main reason you have heard Waters’ name prior to now, try not to hold that against this dear song or our dear Waters either. “Stunnin’” is a prankish posset of salty retorts aimed at the captious critics (and himself), full of the same kind of play-posturing done by the Beastie Boys in their early days. It is a very tongue-in-cheek nod to a harder stance than has actually ever even been considered by its creator, and sounds like a digital candle guttering. All this while Waters dances like a spiritato on smoko, with a straight face that is also sort of a grimace. Watch it for many reasons. The first being that it isn’t every day you meet an artist that can fleetly feint between nonplussed Tory grandee to pet of the brothel, spitting peasant rhymes, in a matter of two lyrical beats. Beyond that, you’ve got to admire the Bond Street manners of an avowed Nepali virgin who natters, “I supply the dick when she want it” with such mincing Teutonic aristocracy.
With this first gigot of a record, Curtis Waters has defied genre, traditional ideas of gender, disparate cultural identities, and the web-based globe with seeming ease to transform his ostracism into a heartsore fracas worthy of your ear. One area in which he has not been able to glide is the one place he truly should not: age. Pity Party looks, sounds, and feels like a very young record made by an artist just beginning to try out the hyena howls, space lasers, and wartime jazz that inhabit his soul and (I suspect) will come to define his career. This album is a blanket protest against his own darker angels, the unnatural constraints of being young in such a strange era, and the bizarre atrial ventricular problems that such social skullduggery ultimately forges in an inexperienced heart. Pity Party is his John Galt moment and it leaves a scar like a scorpion tail across any counterfactual statements in your own cellular atlas that might still be giving you a casual drubbing on gloomy days.
The manner in which Waters has approached this electrocautery of an album is a bit like throwing your only sack of money over a high wall in order that you might force yourself to climb over it. It is often all stick, no carrot when a new artist attempts to make a full record out of his or her bungles and languor. The most striking thing about the way that Curtis Waters approaches the bilking or dispositif pieces of his young life is how good-naturedly and candidly he does so. Among the most cherry rewards for listening is sonic interaction with his unstudied spirit, buoyant throughout all of these songs, even as he is looting the mortars of his own hardships or bribing the porter at the gates of his own failing internal barony. Pity Party will drag you to vital considerations about the weeding of your own interior gardens. Nyctinastic flowers are lovely and all, but there is certainly something to be said for those blooms that refuse to go to bed with the sun.