Clayton James’ newest album, Now I Can Rest, blends lo-fi chillhop with synth pop elements as it traverses the landscape of human emotion | Photo by Zach Pollack

Local hip-hop artist Clayton James unfolds a journey of self-assurance on his latest album, Now I Can Rest, which dropped on April 15. It launches with an initially boombastic ’90s drum-n-bass atmosphere, then takes a turn into grimy territory and slow-rap iterations as it unwinds. 

James’ last album, Rise and Shine (2020), is a compilation of summertime jams with lighthearted vibes. Now I Can Rest comes from his struggle with picking up the pieces of his own willpower. 

Going into 2021, James said he was working a job he hated that took up all his time, but he still kept writing and shelving ideas.

“I just felt this humongous hole,” he said. “I no longer felt like people wanted to hear me. It was really hard to get back to the place where I felt like there was momentum. This was a lot more arduous. I struggled a lot more through this process. I was writing things over the span of two years, whereas Rise and Shine, I wrote it in a concise five or six months.” 

At first, the concept was to create an anti-Rise and Shine, which resulted in the gloomy brooding heard on “Burn” with its tired trepidation and “No Thrill” with its distorted keyboard rhythm. Yet James ended up reworking old demos and writing new material to capture a multifaceted mood. To James, the early 2000s pop songs of Britney Spears or *NSYNC still sound good to listeners 20 years later because they tune into very simple human messages. Alongside that inspiration is the British trip-hop of Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky. 

“I focused a lot more on composition and collaboration in person with people,” he said. He handled a chunk of the beat production on the new album, leaving instrumental handprints on tracks such as “Burn,” “No Thrill” and “Probably,” with piano, bass and guitar in addition to synth — all the while spattering the canvas with relentless lyrics.

The dissonant beat drawls along on “Probably” as James reflects on a haphazard society: “mindless mood alterations, miscommunication, missed opportunities, misused innovation / dosing through the dormancy of ample alienation, trying to fill the vacancy, the void of impatience.”

After he received some sage, tough-love advice one evening, he ended up writing “Patience,” which he sees as the most accessible song he’s ever written. And although it’s the last song on the album, it was one of the first songs tracked in the studio with Matt Tuton at The Lab on Johns Island, who James worked with on the majority of the new record.

“Hearing my voice back in the studio and hearing how everything sounded I left the studio feeling like, ‘OK I remember what this feels like,’ ” James said. 

Other local collaborations on Now I Can Rest include beats made with Baby Yaga bassist Gee Peralta, producer Preston Dunnavant and both members of Little Stranger — John Shields produced the classic boom-bap rhythm heard on “Gather Round” while Kevin Shields raps the second verse. 

“I like to think of this album as being in three very distinct phases or parts: the first three songs are high energy, really positive but also a little egotistical like, ‘Yeah, I’m doing this; this is me.’ And then the songs in the middle I had a hand in the production — more downtempo, darker. The last three are sort of this weird place of acceptance where it’s like, ‘It’s OK to have those positive highs and those angry lows, and your softer side.’”

As James grappled with both anxiety and ambition, he completed an album that captures the ebb and flow of life. 

“When I was writing those songs I was like, ‘How do I capture how I felt before all that self-doubt?’ And then it was like, ‘How do I capture anger and how do I capture vulnerability and acceptance?’ ”

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