UNLOCKED: The Key’s review of Lushlife + CSLSX’s Ritualize

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Lushlife’s Ritualize album cover | photo courtesy of the artist

Ritualize is a record that’s concerned with vibe and feeling—it’s a record that wants to transport you somewhere, then set the mood in broad, sweeping strokes. The collaboration between Philly rapper Lushlife (a.k.a. Raj Haldar) and production trio CSLSX is a dreamy journey through a jungle of smoke and sex, through which Lushlife, our narrator, weaves yarns and offers cinematic snapshots of the people and things he sees.

It’s beautiful, sultry record, with Lushlife’s raps the muscle that keeps it moving ahead. Constructed painstakingly by Haldar and CSLSX over the course of 3 years—in a process that Haldar describes as “Herculean”—Ritualize succeeds because it spares no detail in achieving its after hours vibe. Production is pristine, and listening on headphones, you get the sense that there is a real depth to these songs, even if they were layered together one piece at a time in the studio.

The record is a departure for both Lushlife—whose 2012 release Plateau Vision, was hard-hitting, and featured mostly self-production—and for CSLSX, who until now have released hazy, chill-wave-inclined streamers for the indie pop crowd. It works because both parties are committed to the vision, and because their complementary strengths add up to something nuanced and genre-defying.

The record begins with “Totally Mutual Feeling,” which fades in like a wave hitting the shore, before settling into the throwback bounce that continues throughout most of the record. Haldar’s raps climb on top, like a light cutting through the fog—growing philosophical on “The Waking World” (“I’m at the bar alone / sipping La Fin de Monde”), nostalgic on sex-jazz tapestry “Hong Kong (Lady of Love)” and introspective on club simmerer “Body Double”—but always identifiable as the product of his quirky mind. (I’ll also note within the first three tracks we get shout-outs to Bottle Rocket, Isabella Rossellini, Holden Caulfield, and Atticus Fitch—so clearly Lushlife has curated tastes).

Ritualize features a bevy of special guests, and there’s always the worry—especially with big names like Killer Mike and Ariel Pink—that a record will rely on its guests too heavily to carry songs. That’s not the case here though, and the guests all feel like just another dimension to broad, complex concoctions. Ariel Pink’s wispy vocals on “Hong Kong” add a seedy, cinematic glow, just as I Break Horses’ lush swaddles help craft “The Waking World’s” layers. Later, Killer Mike’s verse on “This Ecstatic Cult” adds variety as him and Haldar swap rhymes—and folk singer Marissa Nadler (perhaps the most unexpected choice) contributes lovely, ethereal vocals to “Integration Loop”’s orchestral swirls.

The record also includes quite a few local artists—rapper Freeway sounds invigorated on “Strawberry Mansion,” a celebration of Philly neighborhoods, including the titular spot near where Freeway grew up. But perhaps most impressive is the 7-and-a-half-minute, multi-part “Toynbee Suite,” featuring Philly DJ RJD2, electronic solo artist Nightlands (a.k.a. War on Drugs’ Dave Hartley) and indie rapper Yikes the Zero—in addition to a full orchestra. Originally conceived during a Shaking Through session in 2013 (read our original story on it here), Ritualize’s version is cleaned up and pared down, and its placement in the middle of the record makes it a quirky centerpiece that proves Ritualize isn’t afraid to do exactly what it wants, when it wants.

Talking to Haldar and CSLSX about the record (full story coming Thursday), both tell me there was no specific theme in mind during the writing period; rather each track was constructed individually from myriad influences. So it’s noteworthy then that Ritualize sounds so cohesive, and we likely have CSLSX’s production to thank for that. It may have taken 3 years to come together, but the results speak for themselves. Ritualize is a unique and beautiful record, and the start of a new chapter for both Haldar and CSLSX.

Ritualize is the featured album in this week’s edition of Unlocked. Read yesterday’s track spotlight on “Body Double” here and check back later this week for a video, an interview and a photo essay.

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