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Zhu stuns in meaningful and moody debut with ‘Generationwhy’

The scene opens to the inky darkness of midnight in the “Neon City.” A saxophone blows like a cool breeze through the balmy air, muting the buzz of the fluorescent signs that clamor for attention. So begins the intro track of Generationwhy, the stunning debut from mystery man, Steven Zhu.

Maya Angelou murmurs above barreling subway cars: “Everyone in the world has gone to bed one night or another with fear or pain or loss or disappointment. Yet each of us has awakened arisen. It’s amazing, wherever that abides in the human being, there is the nobleness of the human spirit.”

The sample, which finds Angelou reading the titular poem from her seminal collection, 1978’s And Still I Rise is an appropriate selection from a mysterious producer whose only goal is to be taken seriously–not only as an “EDM” icon, but in the context of finer arts.

While much of the electronic music world is still buzzing about the Stranger Things soundtrack, Zhu is offering up the other side of the coin: an LP with an infallible aesthetic vision. Due for release sometime this summer, “Generationwhy”—the short film of the same name—boasts a Drive-inspired, darkly neon colorway. The film was written and conceived by the producer himself with input from accoladed visual artists like Cathy Cooper, neontastic tumblr star Signe Pierce, and supreme cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi. The trailer boasts glowing praise from both the New York and Los Angeles Times.

Though it’s undoubtedly an album for driving down palm-lined roads in the dark July heat, it’s more than a coincidence that it has arrived now. Despite sitting completed for the better part of a year, Generationwhy has appeared deep in the scrutable heart of Grammy-eligible release season.

It all means one thing: Zhu is taking himself seriously. And so should we.

Not at all a collection of attempted breakouts, scheming across genres; Generationwhy is instead thoughtfully executed and dauntingly coherent. Somewhere between a concept album and a moody soundtrack, the LP conjures immediate and unflinching imagery within the first few notes of the introduction and doesn’t stray for a single second of 58 minutes.

At its core, Generationwhy asks heavy questions. From Angelou’s introduction to the brooding interludes on later track “Good Life,” Zhu interrogates human nature, concepts of unity, and dance music’s ability to enlighten.

Take the titular track’s allusions to the original Edenic struggle for consciousness: “I’mma wake up to my nakedness, cuz I’m walking on the beat.” It’s an appeal to the broader social factors that fostered the rise of the original scene at Paradise Garage and the Warehouse.

In fact, appeals to higher ground in the pop culture caste system are peppered throughout the album. You might point to middle track “Money”’s updated take on the iconic intro sound effects from Pink Floyd’s track of the same name. Or the Maceo Plex-esque vibes on “In the Morning,” where the album’s festering darkness bubbles to the surface in a deeply sexy, minimal house number. Classic TR-909 sounds and analog rhythmic variety permeate the LP. Despite being one of the most famous working producers in the current market, much of the album wouldn’t feel out of place in a Lane 8 mixtape.

While even the most revered DJs are self-effacing glorified clowns, Zhu has somehow managed to avoid the gimmicky madness of it all. His anonymity is an asset, not a crutch, and he manages to drag each one of his collaborators under the cloak of mystery with him. Uncredited in track listings, the voices instigate curiosity and demand a full listen. Heavy hitters like Nikola Bedingfield, Broods, and James Young (who pulls double duty) grace the album’s shadowy atmosphere with fleeting turns at playing the narrator with the lilting falsetto.

The result is a stunning debut that conveys a fully formed aesthetic vision through an immaculate sound stage. Generationwhy is a genuine delight that skillfully walks the razor thin line between that which feels great to hear and valuable cultural contributions.

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