Is PARTYNEXTDOOR Secretly a Production Genius?

No one has mastered Toronto’s murky beats like Party has.

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May 26 2016, 2:15pm

As a producer and musician, PARTYNEXTDOOR was and still is far more enthralling than as merely a Drake associate or another post-Weeknd, melancholy R&B singer. Party’s production is strongly idiosyncratic and borderline experimental in texture compared to the rest of the mainstream R&B world he by default inhabits. Bryson Tiller is content with crooning over booming 808s and Chris Brown saunters through DJ Mustard-lite club fantasias, with both of these sounds doing exceptionally well on the radio and in clubs. Beyoncé and Rihanna have pursued ambitions far beyond their genre boxes, but are still in service to the appealing gleam demanded of mainstream music. In contrast, Party’s music sticks out like a sore thumb, lo-fi and desiccated in feel. Consider his relationship to his fellow OVO producers: he doesn’t have 40’s late-night cool, Nineteen85’s throwback appeal, or Boi-1da’s muscular, twinkling bangers. There is no one like him. Party is an outlier. Why?

Since the beginning, Party has favoured sounds native to chillout-leaning electronic genres like downtempo and deep house. Skittering synth arpeggios, moaning synth pads and looming, dissonant sub bass colour his beats. His choice of samples reflect this singular taste; not every R&B producer would flip Gold Panda and chillwaver Com Truise on their debut album. Incredibly, Party even out-ambient-ed himself on PartyNextDoor 2 by sampling hooded “witch-house” producer Holy Other on “East Liberty”. The use of Disclosure’s “Latch” on that same album’s “Sex on the Beach” by fellow producer Neenyo served as a timely remix but the original’s off-kilter chord progression and chilly synths sync well with Party’s existing sonic palette, more so because they’re subject to his favourite trick: detuning.

The defining element of any Party production is his use of detuning. The usual definition of the term refers to tuning a string instrument like an electric guitar lower than normal. In this case, it describes the music being out of tune with other recorded music. If you have a guitar or a piano handy, try playing along to nearly any PARTYNEXTDOOR recording. If the instrument is in tune, it will sound slightly, but noticeably off. This is because, for whatever reason, Party shifts the pitch of his beats. This is gonna get nerdy, so bear with me for a second here.

Most music recordings adhere to a standard of the note “A” resonating at a frequency of 440 hertz. However, sometimes a recording is done in a way that “A” is not at 440 hertz and is instead at about 425 or 455. This usually happens in older rock recordings when the individual band members have tuned to each other’s instruments rather than a tuner or if a recording engineer decided to slightly speed up or slow down the entire master tape. The resulting song wouldn’t be in the key of, for example, C or C-sharp, instead sitting somewhere in an imaginary area between the two. These chords and notes in limbo are called quarter-tones. Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” are good examples of tracks where the recording is a quarter-tone higher. Radiohead’s The Bends is a full-album example of the same, but everything is a quarter-tone lower instead. Hear how the songs sound kind of worn-out and warm, like an old vinyl?

There are no real, practical reasons for intentionally detuning a recording other than personal preference, but some fringe theorists have posited that tuning instruments to a frequency of 432 hertz produces vibrations that are more in tune to the universe’s natural wavelength. Who knows if that’s why Party detunes his beats to be “off-440”, but the worn-out effect pervades everything he lays a hand on, following him around like an aura. Compare Drake’s “Days in the East” and Party’s “West District”, two songs which use the exact same PND beat–give or take a Ginuwine chop–and similar melodic ideas. Party’s version of the beat on “West District” is off-440, about a quarter-tone higher than “Days in the East”. This slight change, along with typical PND tools like his omnipresent phone-call vocal filter, goes a long way to making “West District” feel like its own PARTYNEXTDOOR song as opposed to just a Drake remix. Party’s contribution to “U With Me?” is a single vocal run and even that is off-440, refusing to comply to 40’s wavelength and carving its own path.

Even if this formula could result in redundancy or a narrow lane, there’s no denying that Party’s production has its own voice. “Legend” and “Preach” display all of his signatures, and “With You”’s out-of-tune, whirring synths sound unmistakably like Party’s work. His songs and beats live somewhere in-between established musical home keys, hovering uncertainly like the fraught, poisonous relationships he sings about. No one else in the current world of R&B does exactly what he does as a producer; his closest forebears are artists like Clams Casino, Oakland cloud-rap beatmaker duo Friendzone or Yung Lean’s Sadboy stable of beatmakers. They are all essentially ambient electronic musicians whose sometimes unnervingly hazy work just happens to be based around rap drums.

Granted, the only hint we've been given for P3 is his writing credit on Rihanna's "Work", a considerably more amiable and inviting piece of music than Party’s regular production. Then again, it might just be bait to lure audiences into another black hole of ambient, swirling beats. That PND managed to finesse his way into the music libraries and hearts of rap/R&B listeners everywhere with this music is nothing short of bizarre. Then again, selling your weirdness to a mass audience is what being a genius is about.

Phil Witmer experiences life at 432 Hz. Follow him on Twitter.