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Beck: obliterating the boundaries of genre since day one

American musician Beck is a difficult artist to define. With a career that spans four decades, Beck’s music has encompassed every genre imaginable, including folk, funk, soul, hip-hop, electronic, alt-rock, country, and psychedelia. 

Unhindered by the expectations set upon him by previous releases, Beck has released 14 studio albums, each showcasing a distinct crevice of his creative identity, proving that he is one of the most diversely skilled artists in existence. 

From his humble beginnings in the 80s to creating one of Gen X’s biggest anthems, Beck has always been more than what meets the eye. 

As a teenager, Beck started playing folk and blues music, however, an insatiable sonic hunger saw the young artist consuming music from all kinds of influence, including both rock and hip-hop. He brought his sound to life with a considerable amount of lyrical improvisation, which he used to gain attention by cafe patrons and passersby. The spontaneous aesthetic that Beck carried then still rings true, with many of the artist’s unusual and ironic lyrics being merely the first thing that came to his mind. 

After independent record label, Bong Load Custom Records showed interest in the young artist, Beck collaborated with Carl Stephenson, a record producer for Rap-A-Lot Records. Inspired by his current circumstances, living in a rat-infested shed near a Los Angeles alleyway, totally broke, Beck released Loser as a single in March 1993. At first, the young artist thought the track was mediocre and only released it on the insistence of others, but of course, it ended up being one his most successful tracks. It wasn’t long before Bong Load couldn’t keep up with the demand for Beck, and a bidding war on the artist was soon set alight. 

Critics linked Loser with Generation X’s vacant approach to life, nonchalant style and attitude riddled in “whatever”. But, of course, these lyrics were ironic and Beck revealed that he certainly was not the face of the “slacker” generation. 

“Slacker my ass. I mean, I never had any slack. I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. That slacker stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything.”

In those early years, a heavy pressure rested upon Beck, making him feel as though he was only a one-hit-wonder. Following the release of Mellow Gold, Beck spent countless hours creating new music blending country, blues, rap, folk and rock in new and exciting ways. He was determined to recreate himself as more than the king of slackers, and so after some time, he released Odelay in 1996, to commercial success and critical acclaim. The record produced a number of hit singles and was even nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1997, taking out the award for the best alternative album. After the release of Odelay, it was as though Beck had formed a genre of his own ingeniously combining plucked guitars and scratchy hip-hop and folk in a way that is totally unparalleled. 

Beck lives and breathes experimentation in almost every way, unafraid to try his hand at something which at first might sound ludicrous. The following albums after Odelay, saw the artist reveal new layers and shed old skins. This included 1998’s Mutations and 1999’s Midnite Vultures in which the artist danced between the persona of a laid-back and soulful crooner and eclectic playfulness. 

2002’s Sea Change reflected its name through every nook and cranny. The album in its entirety was written just weeks after the separation from his partner of over nine years. The album is tinged with a far darker sense of melancholy than his previous releases, seeing Beck present a collection of sadly nostalgic acoustic tracks. In many ways, Lost Cause was the embodied his anguish. Still, it was just as relatable as his freestyles about disparate youth, revealing that growth is not always upwards in nature but more like a widening canyon of emotional intelligence. 

In the last 15 years, Beck has released six albums – Guero (2005), The Information (2006), Modern Guilt (2008), Morning Phase (2014), Colors (2017), Hyperspace (2019). Through these albums, Beck has addressed every avenue from wistful acoustic tracks to floor-filling dance hits. While tracks within his own albums reveal some of his best work, especially the woozy sonic sensibilities of Modern Guilt, it is the artist’s other collaborations and projects which have shined brightest. Beck has performed alongside some of the world’s biggest musical icons and covered musicians including the likes of Prince and David Bowie.  He has also written and produced for a number of superstars ranging from Thurston Moore to Childish Gambino. 

It may have taken him a while to realise it, but Beck encapsulates true ingenuity and a sense of independence when it comes to creating music. He proves that genre is a construct that should not be adhered to, but rather obliterated through art. He proves time and time again, we ourselves are responsible to define who are.