In the life of any interesting artist, there is the perpetual war between the simplicity of public perception and the complexities of reality. Consider Hanni El Khatib, a definitive purveyor of visceral, blues-wracked, punk-spiked, soul-warped, knife fight rock n’ roll over the last decade. You may be familiar with him through any one of his four acclaimed solo albums on Innovative Leisure, his work with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, or as one of the rare polymaths able to artfully blend serrated guitars and hardcore rap on collaborations with GZA and Freddie Gibbs. And while these are all real things that could accurately yield a sketch of the multi-dimensional Los Angeles-based artist, they amount to little more than a black and white pencil sketch. From 2010 until 2017, there was the usual cycle that consumes most working 21st musicians: make an album, and tour it for the next 18 months. Return home, rinse and repeat. And with it came the predictable pitfalls that ensnare too many artists whose professional obligations require high-octane performances before 1,000 or more strangers every night. It is a dream until that one night when it isn’t any longer, and despite his gratitude for his fans and station in life, El Khatib found himself wracked by depression and anxiety. What had once been joyous creative outlet felt like a job. In the wake of the release of 2017’s Savage Times, it became readily apparent that if El Khatib didn’t make drastic changes to his lifestyle, there might not be a life to speak of. So he quit drinking, stopped touring, and took an indefinite hiatus from the studio. But eventually, the desire to create songs slowly returned.
What would eventually become El Khatib’s fifth studio album, the virtuosic but characteristically raw FLIGHT began as spontaneous experimentation. Over the last several years, El Khatib had become close friends with Leon Michels, best known as the mastermind of the soul controllers, the El Michels Affair, but who has also quietly racked up producer credits for the likes of pop juggernauts like Lana Del Rey, Rick Ross, Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky, and Eminem -- as well as frequently working in sessions with Grammy-winning
super-producer Mark Ronson. The finished result is a rollicking sampledelic opus that recalls the beautiful chaos that the Dust Brothers created on Paul’s Boutique and Odelay. It’s the type of thing that Dilla and Madlib would’ve created if they had come up on The Cramps.
The irony, of course, is that for a record that sounds like little else El Khatib has ever done, it’s the most complete embodiment of who he is as an artist. It’s a record both dense and intricate yet direct and spontaneous. It is garage rock, it is hip-hop, it is soul, it is blues, it is psychedelic, but more than anything, it’s a brilliant Hanni El Khatib record -- one that taps into the adolescent spirit of creation that first stirred him to make songs in the first place. Here he is on his fifth album, back for the first time.