It’s about time America had its own version of The Go! Team, a group that feels both timeless and extremely of the moment. And while BLACKSTARKIDS may differ in terms of the amount of plunderphonic techniques applied to their music, the sense of pilfering freely from multiple decades of pop and hip-hop is at the forefront of the trio’s distinctive sound. With a mischievous smile, the group pulls off that most difficult of musical magic tricks: fusing together well-worn styles in a manner that sounds wholly original.
If there’s a term that best describes the tone and sensibility of Puppies Forever, the new album from the Kansas City-based genre-hoppers, it’s “joyous.” From the midtempo guitar jangle that kicks off the bedroom-pop sound of opener “So Sweet!” to the ’80s Brit-pop synths that lead into the dreamy funk of closer “Somedaze,” the entire record sounds like an ebullient party next door. It’s as though the smartest kids on your block got together, captured the essence of backyard barbecues, late-night hangouts, and last-day-of-school catharsis alike, then alchemically transformed them into songs.
Though being marketed as their debut album, Puppies Forever is actually the fourth full-length from these youthful artists (Ty, Deiondre, and The Babe Gabe are all only a few years out from high school). But if Let’s Play Sports, Surf, and 2020’s Whatever, Man found the group experimenting with a variety of genres and tools—ranging from twee indie pop to fuzzed-out rockers to classic old-school boom-bap—this latest release feels like the three have finally found the right balance of ingredients. The results are remarkably consistent: songs that maintain their individuality while nonetheless sounding very much of a piece with everything surrounding them.
And the biggest unifying force among each of these tracks—whether delivering laconic, Digable Planets-style jazzy grooves and verses or frenetic, distorted hyperpop rhythms—is a playfully melodic chorus, always calibrated to maximize the strengths of the arrangement and bring its unique musicality to the fore. “Pals” may coast along on juddery psychedelic funk, while “Piss Drunk Kids” employs Coldplay-like piano riffs underneath its steady pulsing beat (and some ace flow in its rapping), but they’re joined in spirit by the larger than life choruses, alternating between soulful R&B and simple, sing-along exhortations to maximize your time on this earth.
When they rap, the biggest stylistic influence seems to be the four-on-the-floor thump of hip-hop’s early days; elements of Run-DMC and Beastie Boys’ “hit it on the 4 count” rhyme schemes alternate with the downbeat drawl of Tribe Called Quest, and even the stutter-step flow of something like Urban Dance Squad can be heard in the group’s embrace of multiple eras from the genre’s history. But that, too, gets balanced out with fresh, contemporary techniques that update the past: “Fight Club” sounds like Nicki Minaj’s “chun li” if it were produced by Prince Paul in a Bed-Stuy warehouse in 2003, yet The Babe Gabe’s flow is as nimble and ferocious as anything currently on the charts.
But the music delivers just as many giddy surprises as the vocal work. “I Hate Being In Love” starts off sounding like The Cure (an apt pull, given how much that title sounds like a Robert Smith joint), while “Clueless America” fuses grungy guitar and drum machines in a manner befitting mid-’90s Kill Rock Stars or K Records acts. And—fittingly for a trio so committed to inverting the expected use of its multifarious styles—the album’s fiercest and angriest track, “ACAB,” starts off sounding like it could be an early Paramore B-side, before segueing into a Black Eyed Peas-style pop-crossover, albeit with a Guided By Voices-esque incorporation of reverb-filled, lo-fi production. The surfeit of references may sound dizzying, and it is; it’s also increasingly impressive.
Ultimately, Puppies Forever maintains a fey enthusiasm, combined with an attendant lack of cynicism, that makes its infectious, wide-eyed openness to vulnerability and happiness all the more compelling. Not every track will work for everyone—things can get a bit Sugar Ray-like at times, for example—but even the occasional missteps feel more like a willingness to deliver a warts-and-all look at a group just coming into their own than some error that would pull you out of the record. “I wanna give you hope—in yourself, in your children,” goes one line; “Who needs another thing to be mad about?” urges another. This is an album that charms its way into your heart: A DIY spirit with arena-anthem melodies and lo-fi bedroom aesthetics may sound like an odd admixture, but BLACKSTARKIDS make it work.