Skrillex’s rise to fame and ubiquity started out as a grassroots thing, with his singles and shows selling well by word of mouth, but it accelerated drastically by the end of 2011, when he became the de facto face of both dubstep and the broader EDM phenomenon in the media. It wasn’t just that Skrillex was one of the few EDM stars to have a very memorable look that didn’t involve a face-obscuring helmet, but that his image as a tiny, bespectacled cyberpunk with a bizarre asymmetrical haircut was more or less exactly what most outsiders expected of a youth-oriented genre they didn’t respect or understand. He instantly became a symbol of “the kids these days,” while his abrasive, hyperactive music made people feel “old” even if they were only in their mid-twenties. Over the past two years, his music has been hugely influential in the mainstream — a mild approximation of his signature bass-drop style has been integrated into massive hits by Taylor Swift, Imagine Dragons, Britney Spears, and Alex Clare — but he’s still mainly known as a meme.
The funny thing about Skrillex’s status as cultural shorthand for dubstep and EDM is that he’s hardly emblematic of either scene. He’s loathed by dubstep purists who resent the way he’s Americanized the sound by essentially using their sonic palette as the basis for amped-up jock jams, and though he plays a lot of the same festivals as EDM mainstays like Avicii, Deadmau5, Tiesto, and Afrojack, his music has far more structure and character than their strictly utilitarian dance tracks. In reality, Skrillex doesn’t signify anything more than himself — he’s a sui generis pop character with a distinct, highly identifiable musical style that’s all his own.
Skrillex has already established his style, so Recess, his first full-length album, is more about expanding his range as an artist. The musical elements of the record — house beats, harsh digital noise, dancehall toasting, rock dynamics, rapping — is very similar to Kanye West’s Yeezus, but Skrillex uses the same set of influences to arrive at a very different and more joyful place, and is more interested in thrilling his audience than freaking them out. Pretty much all of Recess is extremely energetic, but it’s not an exhausting onslaught on bangers. “Coast Is Clear,” his collaboration with Chance the Rapper, is about 10 times more smooth than you’d ever expect from Skrillex up till this point, and both “Stranger” and “Ease My Mind” are just on the edge of being conventional pop songs. There is an essential gleeful, manic Skrillex-ness to everything on Recess, but it’s all a matter of him structuring the tracks so they work as proper songs rather than just drop delivery systems. He’s in full control of his stylistic tics, and has learned how to let them frame and enhance performances by vocalists like Chance and K-Pop rappers G-Dragon and CL rather than completely overwhelm them.
In structure and tone, the closest comparison to Recess are late-’90s albums by big beat stars The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim. The music is unambiguously rooted in electronic dance music and makes a lot of references to hip-hop and reggae, but the approach to songwriting is heavily indebted to the dynamics of hard rock. This makes a lot of sense — before he became Skrillex, 26-year-old Sonny Moore was a member of a punk band called From First to Last that was big on the Warped Tour circuit. The dynamics of the most iconic Skrillex songs, like “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” “Rock & Roll,” and “Bangarang,” essentially update the most exciting elements of hard rock – riffs, solos, and breakdowns. But it’s all filtered through a very different aesthetic, so it can sound like someone trying to speak to you in your own language but mangling the accent so much that it’s almost unintelligible.
After all the hype and backlash around his first few EPs, Skrillex’s sound could’ve easily been a novelty or an artistic dead end, but Recess is a convincing argument that it’s something that can open up new possibilities within a lot of established genres. And this isn’t just a matter of “hey, let’s put a drop in everything!” What really defines Skrillex, and sets him apart from both the titans of the EDM scene and the producers who dominate pop radio, is that he’s basically like an overgrown kid, and his music taps into a very childlike feeling of unrestrained enthusiasm. This guy isn’t coming from a jaded, cynical place, and he most certainly doesn’t subscribe to the widespread belief that “it’s all been done.” Recess is the work of a dude who is constantly looking for new, more effective ways to make people feel excited and happy, and we’re all very lucky to have him basically doing R&D for the future of pop music.