The Brooklyn songwriter’s self-produced second LP is an introduction to the psyche beneath the quirky bowl cut. But its self-imposed pop formulas and strained symbolism reveal little.
Gus Dapperton: e-boy archetype, Porches lookalike, bedroom pop artist, post-Tumblr aesthete, TikTok native. He is a mood board, Gen Z culture personified. Over the past few years, the Brooklyn-based 23-year-old and his class of fellow online alterna-pop artists with colorful hair have developed an aesthetic: light, hazy synth tunes that blur into fans’ lives and Spotify algorithms. His smooth, sunny pop songs address modern anxieties in ways that feel direct and relatable, simple to the point of monotony. Dapperton’s two EPs and 2019 debut full-length garnered a young cult following that grew with his feature on BENEE’s “Supalonely,” a 2020 TikTok hit that climbed the Billboard charts. But musical identity was secondary to Dapperton’s rise, which seemed to hinge on easy listening and a trendy persona. Dapperton looks like Brooklyn to people who’ve never been to Brooklyn. He looks like a rock star to fashion insiders. He looks cool to teenagers. And he sounds like anybody. Orca, his self-produced second LP, is an introduction to the psyche beneath the quirky bowl cut. Unfortunately, it fails to answer some key questions—namely, who is Gus Dapperton and what is he trying to be?
A newfound honesty and ease runs through Orca’s reflections on depression. You can hear him becoming more comfortable with his voice, stretching it beyond a nasally croon. Still, his personality remains hidden, and it’s hard to discern what he’s going for. “Bluebird”’s swaggering bassline feels goofy and forced against Dapperton’s bratty drone: “I’m young and I’m never getting old/That’s my human right.” “My Say So” lands somewhere between Top 40 hit, schoolyard chant, and fictional Disney Channel band as Dapperton and Australian singer Chela bop along to xylophone scales: “My say so still says the same/So I say so in different ways.”
His most successful lines either appeal to a quick-pulsed adolescent nihilism, or are made to sound significant by attention-grabbing production choices. “I’m too atheist to pray for my life,” Dapperton moans on “First Aid,” arguably the best track on Orca. A phrase as inane as “I love it when you cuss” ignites when it’s pummeled by drums on “Grim.” But the album’s emptier arrangements expose contrived poetics. “Though books of Dawkins seem to think that we are through,” he pronounces on “Swan Song,” apparently having just finished The God Delusion. Dapperton tries on words like “apostacize” and metaphors about broken cameras, speaking as “the product of a crowded youth…strictly cavalier inside.” The flowery language doesn’t fit his mild pop flavor, and the shots at intellectual depth hardly register.
Bedroom pop lends itself to a solitary environment, while anthemic radio pop usually requires more people in the room. Dapperton writes, records, and produces all of his own music; aside from some mixing, mastering, and guest vocalists’ harmonizing, Orca is a one-man production. And as he attempts to polish and sharpen the genre, his source material gets lost in translation. Dapperton sacrifices grainy intimacy in favor of a more accessible singer-songwriter style, settling closer to the adult contemporary umbrella that stretches over artists like Ed Sheeran and Khalid. Flashes of gauzy Mac DeMarco guitars and emo cadences read like not-so-subtle reminders of unearned indie street cred. It’s all very calculated, but it doesn’t quite add up.
Dapperton’s potential shines when he pushes himself, when it sounds like he’s making music for self-expression and fun, expanding his vocal range and messing around with reverb. He loses it inside of self-imposed pop formulas and strained symbolism. Certain beats just work better in a seconds-long TikTok dance routine than on headphones. Like many young artists today, Dapperton is under pressure to strike the mood of the moment and achieve virality—to sustain a feedback loop of recommended content. Pop music worked this way long before social media, but as musicians and audiences bend to the will of the feed, the overemphasis on aesthetics feels increasingly pervasive.
According to a recent interview, Dapperton’s most treasured albums include the Smiths compilation Hatful of Hollow, Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. This collection makes sense on the surface: three classics of sad-boy rock that look great on a gallery wall. But beyond their covers, each is an example of artists experimenting with sound and vulnerability early in their discography. Maybe, if Dapperton spent more time absorbing and workshopping the ideas that turned his inspirations into phenomenons, he would unlock what sets him apart.
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