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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Silk Sonic "Skate" us back in time a half-century with buttery smoothness

In a pop scene inundated with 80s throwbacks, a tribute to the early 70s is a breath of fresh air and then some.

I’m so done with 80s-inspired pop, at least for a few years.

There are only so many ways you can call back to that era’s popular sound, with its explosion of synths like the Yamaha DX7 and the advent of gated reverb (the compressed, punch-like “In the Air Tonight” drum effect), before it gets old, and it all got old for me sometime in early 2020, right after The Weeknd released his album After Hours.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of 80s music — and I’ll write about more of it as this list grows — but I’m just sick of the current pop scene trying to emulate that era. Thankfully, plenty of artists are pushing pop’s soundscape in other directions. The late 90s / early 00s pop punk sound is back, spearheaded by Machine Gun Kelly’s style change on Tickets to My Downfall and Olivia Rodrigo’s earth-moving “good 4 u” and debut album Sour. (Holy ****, she’s three years my junior. What am I doing with my life?) In terms of new soundscapes, look to the world of hip-hop with works like Childish Gambino’s icy, robotic groove on “Algorhythm” from 3.15.20.

And then... there's a duo that decided to not go forward, but instead go further back in time, taking from the early 70s instead. I was floored when I heard Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak absolutely hit that era's sound right on the head in their collaborative project, Silk Sonic. Their first single, "Leave the Door Open," is a slow jam any Motown artist would envy. As huge of a hit that was, I'm more interested in their Philly soul-bathed second release, "Skate." There's just something magical about how it embodies that proto-disco sound to a T.

When I first heard "Skate," I swore it was some forgotten cut from a Philly soul album. Very Smart Brothas co-founder Panama Jackson remarked that the track "sounds like it’s straight out of some Gamble & Huff lost sessions," a testament to just how faithful Silk Sonic were to their predecessors. Paak's bone-dry drums that open the track are a 70s staple: before the gated reverb breakthrough, drums were mic'd within an inch of their heads, and sometimes even on the inside (Estelle Caswell of Vox goes over this evolution in the first video of their brilliant "Earworm" series). With every artist and their mother having made an 80s-inspired record in the past few years, the dry percussion instantly makes "Skate" stand out from the pack, signifying it takes its inspiration from another era. Joining the drum kit are a tambourine, supplementing Paak's cymbals, and Bruno Mars' work on the congas (with which I'm quite impressed).

Melodically, the Philly soul vibes are turned up to eleven with light violins and a glockenspiel on the main line. The glockenspiel/string pairing is such an underrated tool in R&B; the glock's bright percussiveness brings out the attack of a note, while the strings take care of the sustain and release. That doubling is supplemented by high-end flourishes on a Rhodes keyboard, and a guitar also enters in the fifth bar. Beneath all that, a resonant bass guitar plays chord roots and fifths, generating tonal interest in the lower end. There are a lot of moving parts to the intro and the backing as a whole, but they don't get in each other's way because they all occupy different sonic spaces — a hallmark of disco and its progenitors.

It was only when I heard Anderson .Paak begin to sing on my first listen that I realized "Skate" was a contemporary pop tune. His slightly nasal, G-funk-inspired voice is so unique and always a pleasure to listen to. Every line of his sounds like it could be a hook, even the chuckle-inducing "If bein' fine was a crime / Girl, they'd lock your lil' fine ass up in a tower," a line that definitely screams 2021 rather than 1976. As the song gets to the pre-chorus, Paak's voice seamlessly cedes the spotlight to that of resident conguero Mars, who introduces more roller skating imagery as he sings of trying to "roll" and "glide" in his courtship — language which is only added to in the chorus (yup, the song's title is literal, and it's beautifully captured in the music video I embedded earlier on). Mars later sings the second verse as well, complete with a nod to his own 70s-inspired hit "Treasure" ("Superstar is what you are").

The verse, pre-chorus, and chorus also maintain distinction from each other through different rhythmic emphasis in each section. All three sections have two-bar cycles in which vocal lines occur. In the verse, those lines tend to start on the pickup to the first downbeat in the cycle. In the pre-chorus, the first three of the four lines don't start until the pickup to the fourth beat, leaving the prior space for a violin/glock figure. When the chorus comes around, the lines start right on the downbeat, but they're shorter lines and leave the second measure for backing vocals and instrumental flourishes. The rhythmic contrast provided by this variation more than makes up for the general lack of dynamic change throughout the track, keeping interest by changing what elements listeners latch onto first between the sections.

...Wait, it's been over 5000 characters and I haven't even gotten to the heavenly harmonies that Paak and Mars constructed? Holy cow. To condense things a bit, we never actually hear the tonic chord of F Major; instead, "Skate" keeps circling around it, with its main progression going around the circle of fifths while employing a secondary dominant — a chord which is altered to lead to a chord other than the tonic — but resetting before it hits the I chord. Then there are the flavorful extensions Mars sings in the last line of the pre-chorus, focusing on the 11th. Lastly, there's my favorite section of the track, the bridge. The eight-bar bridge ventures out of the key, utilizing a variation on secondary dominants to cycle through a completely new tonal space before reeling things in and smoothly going back to the main progression. Here's a great breakdown of all the harmonic awesomeness by Music Is A Verb, a pop theory YouTube channel I found recently.

I'm so happy that Silk Sonic are looking back to a time period others aren't, because their material sounds so fresh in the 2021 pop landscape... and also because I'm a sucker for 70s music, if you couldn't tell by everything I've written today. I also don't think many other artists will go in this direction, just because of all the different instrumental elements and harmonic intricacies that just aren't found in a lot of modern pop. Regardless of the future, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak masterfully embraced the past with "Skate," breaking new ground for our time by going further back in popular music history.


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