Seated at a veritable command station of computer screens, James Hinton gestures to a nearby wall where four white erase boards are hung, each canvas sparsely annotated with notes and assignments. On one of them, he's scribbled a mathematical equation that he's trying to solve in his spare time, something along the lines of 1+2+3+… = -1/12. "How is it not infinity?" he wonders aloud.
Best known for his work as The Range, Hinton appears curious to the point of distraction. He multitasks subtly as a photographer maneuvers around his modest studio apartment, taking pains to find the best angle. On one monitor, he's tinkering with a mix that has to be finished and submitted soon for promotional purposes. Another displays an amateur YouTube video of a young female singer. His latest album, Potential, draws significantly from the video-sharing site by sampling and repurposing vocals by online performers with monikers like OphQi, Naturaliss, and Kai.
A Brown University graduate with a degree in physics, Hinton moved to Brooklyn in 2015 after spending a number of his post-college years in Providence, Rhode Island. Rather than pursue an academic career in the sciences, he's devoted no small amount of time to making music instead. "I couldn't do anything else," he says. "I didn't want to do anything else."
Yet unlike most college grads who forsake their dotted line career paths for creative pursuits, Hinton's drift paid off. Nonfiction, his riveting and category-defying 2013 album for Donky Pitch, was met with critical acclaim from key outlets, including a "Best New Music" nod from Pitchfork. Now signed to Domino, he freely admits the response to that record came very much as a surprise. "That's an understatement of how I felt," he says. "I was just so cloistered."
Potential is a refreshingly humane rejection of the cutthroat politics of the televised talent competitions of the past 14 years, like American Idol and The X Factor, that have both profited from and taken pleasure in the public mishaps of their contestants. No Simon Cowell, Hinton vigilantly searched YouTube for unknown rappers and singers that might fit his project. He found several, created tracks around the samples, and then went about the difficult task of tracking each person down to humbly ask permission.
"I saw something in them I see in myself that's hard to describe," he says. "When you see someone spilling an emotion that you have difficulty getting out of yourself, that's just going to tie you together in a huge way."
After spending a lot of time with Potential as a listener, that intangible yet undeniable connection between Hinton and his remote collaborators reveals itself in flashes and glints. At a time in electronic music where vocals seem slapped onto a track more often than not, Hinton's meaningful methodology recalls what Burial did on Untrue or what Luomo did on Vocalcity. Like those landmark records, what holds his album together is empathy. What specifically drew him to Kai's take on Ariana Grande's "You'll Never Know" is something personal, but the specific passage and the way he employed for Potential's first single "Florida" provides clues.
By his own admission, opener "Regular" contextualizes the record's ethos as clearly as possible, with the phrase "right now I don't have a backup plan for if I don't make it" repeated and spliced alongside swirling atmospheres, skittish percussion, and deep pads. Those words conjure a storm of conflicting sentiments: hopefulness, devastation, ambition, desperation. Hinton's layered musical accompaniment triggers any and all of these, which is a key part of why he's one of his generation's best electronic artists.
The roots of Potential come from Nonfiction, which employed a similar approach on tracks like "Metal Swing." That song in particular segues well into the new album, which also features some grime artists plucked from Internet obscurity. "It was important to me that I continue along that path but make everything better or more in-depth and well-considered," Hinton says. The distillation and expansion of that sound pays off on "Five Four," a shimmering yet grim cut that sounds like it's straight out of South London.
Despite the opportunities YouTube presents, Hinton harbors no illusion as to the toxicity inherent in the site's culture. "All it takes is one or two bad comments to ruin your day or week or month," he says. Not surprisingly, some of the vocalists whose videos he sampled had dropped off the site, which provided some challenges during the efforts to reach out to them. "I'm amazed that we were able talk to everyone on the record."
Hinton is mindful that Potential could be interpreted by some as exploitative, a type of appropriation by way of cultural tourism. "It's a conversation that needs to happen because of the history," he says. He cites the negative consequences of electronic music's perpetual devouring of globally-sourced genres, from dubstep to tropical house. He refers to similar charges levied at the likes of Diplo and others in the EDM community worthy of such discussion. "There's some serious fallout that needs to happen. It's not okay."
Still, he stresses that the reality in his own case isn't the same. "The people [sampled on Potential] are intimately involved," he says. "I talk to them all, especially Kai when the single was out, and brainstorming with OphQi and ST." Hinton doesn't come out and say it, but he seems to recognizes the value these artists brought to the record and continue to bring to his life. He's trying to foster meaningful relationships online, professionally and personally, just like the rest of us.
"I'm not willing to leave these people going forward," he says.
Potential comes out March 25 on Domino Records, pre-order the record here.
Gary Suarez is on Twitter.