“Once Upon a Time,” the intro track to Mike Dean’s latest album, 4:23, addresses the raging debate over artificial intelligence’s place in music with all the urgency of the first draft of an abandoned Tron sequel. In a story narrated by a disembodied voice somewhere between Laurel Dann’s interludes from A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and Cortana from Halo, we learn that AI has evolved to create art “just as well as humans.” In response, humans organize a contest to prove that the machines can’t and won’t replace them. Mankind prevails in the exact way you’d expect: “While A.I. may be able to create perfect works of art and music/It will never be able to capture the spirit of what makes those creations unquestionably great: the human touch.” That epic scale and narrative window dressing, however, don’t do the music any favors because most of 4:23 is as drab and soulless as a wall of code.
This is a strange disappointment, considering the trajectory of the self-proclaimed Synth God’s solo career, not to mention his collaborative work for rap legends like Scarface and superstars like Beyoncé. Dean’s 2020 instrumental album, 4:20, and its sequel, 4:22, were spaces for him to veer away from his characteristic role as a producer and lean fully into groovy, drugged-out synths for the sake of it—neither album had a single guest feature. 4:23 sets its sights a bit higher: The album is co-executive produced by longtime collaborator the Weeknd, who appears on four songs that were recorded over the course of the week following their appearances at this year’s Coachella. “No throw aways,” Dean recently promised a fan on Twitter.
But for all the pomp and circumstance of the intro, it’s often difficult to pinpoint the human touch behind either the lyrics or the production. Take “Defame Moi,” which is all vague gestures at haters lacking the passion and vitriol of even the Weeknd’s most numbed out ballads. On “More Coke!!,” his voice doesn’t even sound like his. Suffice it to say, the six repeated words (“The cocaine fluctuates my weight/Scarface”) don’t make a case for the pinnacle of human creativity, instead dissolving into a silly Super Duper Flow digitally altered into anonymity. If the point was for his voice to become another instrument in Dean’s synthetic sea, they did their job too well. “Artificial Intelligence” is the closest the duo comes to the promise of their Instagram Live sessions, the Weeknd’s cries for a paramour he left behind on tour elevating Dean’s generic synths and drums with a shot of melodrama.
Left to his own devices, Dean futzes with sounds that trail and flicker on the most basic and boring ideas imaginable. That’s fine when you’re making a project that’s being sold as a low-stakes idea dump for hardcore fans, but less so on a project with a narrative throughline, never mind one executive produced by one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. There are droning synth marches (“Music for the Future”) and bids for the brand of minimal atmospheric flair that dots the scores for Blade Runner and Stranger Things. The two-song suite of “Goodbye Earth” and “Hello Space” is supposed to play up the contrast of leaving behind the old for the new but melts together into a mass of indistinguishable keyboard runs. Closing track “Electric Sheep,” an homage to the short story that inspired Blade Runner, is nothing more than two minutes of grating white noise, aiming for a sweeping and thoughtful sci-fi climax he hasn’t earned. Instead, 4:23 just feels adrift in space.