Album Review: Bryce Vine - 'Carnival'

A prodigal singer-songrapper bursting with charisma, Bryce Vine’s long-awaited debut full-length is a firework display which transcends the vibrant nightlife of both coasts in style.

Bryce Vine is simultaneously both an enigma and a unique aesthetic entity in the current landscape of hip-hop and popular music. Prior EPs Lazy Fair and Night Circus were littered with colourful pop rap jams, from the nostalgic Sour Patch Kids to the doo-wop-influenced Take Me Home. But upon the explosion of the trap-leaning 2017 single Drew Barrymore (partly due to its inclusion on Taylor Swift’s personal playlist), the New Yorkian has been able to slim down his sound into a more billboard-ready breed of low-key rap, whilst maintaining the same slick songwriting and personality as his earlier releases. The resulting work is Carnival, an understated but masterful top-down diversion from the monotony of mainstream rap from across the United States.

And of course, with three alternate versions since its initial release (including a feature appearance from Wale), it’s no surprise that Drew Barrymore turns up here as well, a prospect which would frustrate the listener if the song wasn’t a damn near perfect fit in the tracklist. Its success speaks for itself at this point, but Drew Barrymore is a brooding yet sexually alluring banger, with a hypnotic synth line which desperately overpins the rumbling bassline. The romanticised, consciously materialistic lyrics see a restless Vine make a demand to skip the pre-relationship formalities – “Baby let me in/‘Fore I get way too adamant about it.” Bryce Vine has so much more to offer on Carnival than Drew Barrymore, but that doesn’t make it any less of a familiar euphoria in the album’s 27-minute runtime.

With the breakthrough success of the aforementioned single, it also doesn’t shock that Vine was able to follow up with another piece of essential rap balladry. La La Land, arguably Vine’s biggest single since Drew Barrymore (it also garnered three alternate versions), makes its way onto this record in glimmering fashion. The guitar and reverberating 808s guide this jam through the winding roads of the Hollywood Hills – YG’s contribution is nominal, but it’s a difficult task when Bryce Vine’s charisma flat-out carries the songs on this album. Nevertheless “I come alive at night-time/She said all she really wanna do is fuck, I said ‘Likewise’” fits the bill for a song which romanticises the East and West coasts as much as Vine romanticises his Long Island-residing love interest.

The aforementioned tracks are undoubtedly the A-list guests to the interminable party which is Bryce Vine’s Carnival, but the rest of the album’s 10 tracks (two of which are interludes and outros) show versatility beyond his mainstream potential. Love is a Blessing boasts an RnB-gospel chorus which brings Vine into Chance the Rapper-meets-Anderson .Paak territory, far from the desaturated neon glow of La La Land, whilst the drug-drenched Factory Love features guitars as laid back as the Amalfi Coast coupled with an effortlessly catchy hook fit to soundtrack an artifical high, sheltered from the harsh reality of an unaltered mental state. Carnival is keen to show both sides of affluent nightlife, positive and negative.

The negative comes in due course, and with equal conviction as the positive. Deep in Shallow Water details the tireless grovel to escape the emotional jurisdiction of a significant other with an 80s synthpop instrumental that could’ve been straight out of Taylor Swift’s 1989, yet it only serves to tighten the tension in the mentality of its narrator. Love or Hate Me offers a rare glimpse into the cracks of the Bryce Vine persona whilst maintaining the chilled socialite equilibrium of his flashier material – “If you can be happy while I’m going crazy/Don’t want you to love me, I want you to hate me.”

Bryce Vine brings the carnival into the early hours with San Junipero, a closing afterparty which slips through a fictional tropical paradise, in the process almost breaking the fourth wall in Vine’s often idealistic depictions of America. With a beat as smooth as anything off Anderson .Paak’s acclaimed Ventura, the track is almost a metaphor for the positives and negatives of the aristocratic lifestyle set out in the rest of the album, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful to listen to. 

Played out by an elevator music-like, afrobeat-tinged outro named Havana, Carnival is an album which shines when Bryce Vine’s engaging personality shines through the smooth production. It’s nothing revolutionary, but Vine offers a delightful alternative to hip-hop conventions, whilst still maintaining the sonic tropes which have made the genre the cultural zeitgeist from London to Los Angeles. At this point it’s clear that Bryce Vine has the ear for melody to become a superstar the size of Post Malone, and Carnival teases the appetite for a new character to blur the lines between the world’s two most popular genres.