Producer and solo composer Steven Zhu made his come-up anonymously in 2014, in an honorable effort to shift the spotlight off of his person and onto the musical product he confidently unveiled.
Steven is now thirty-one years old, and his Chinese descent combined with his California upbringing have made for many authentic releases over the past six+ years. I’m sure you’ve all heard his 2015 Grammy-nominated single “Faded,” which was disputably the best dance recording of the year.
With his brand new release, DREAMLAND 2021, ZHU is staking his claim as one of the planet’s most versatile producers. That being said, let’s keep the main focus on the music itself.
The overarching theme of the record is arguably broken down in the outro of the second track with the following spoken words:
“I have to imagine that… the kids, the youth… they don’t stop… they don’t believe that music, dancing—the freedom of expression—will be suppressed for much longer. It can’t; that’s against human nature. I believe that… the future is near.”
– Steven Zhu, ‘Distant Lights’
1. Lost It
The initial vibe of this track invokes the image of an 05’ Mazda RX7 idling in a quiet Tokyo parking lot at 3 AM. As the track drops, heavy rain begins to fall and ZHU takes you out for a spin in said Mazda. Cruising through downtown Tokyo, your senses are invigorated as he takes each corner at high speed.
Our world needs more music like this. The emotional pinnacles expounded by the lead track ‘Lost It’ are taking ZHU to another level. Am I right or am I right? This song slaps.
Listen as the suave guitar runs parlay beneath the gritty sub bass, which rolls through a well-crafted progression. And don’t overlook that low-release envelope on the sub patch, which adds the distinct swing to the rhythm. I simply can’t say enough good things about this cracker of a song.
2. Distant Lights
This track captures a nostalgic energy with the old-school synth and drum selections. His vocal delivery gives the song a clean, focused centre of attention. I’ve got to be honest, though, in some ways this song feels like a Ghostbusters throwback anthem—it’s just those funky synth warbles that take it there.
In the underbrush of the outro, Zhu places a bold statement about the current condition of the world—a message that could impact many lives. Pay close attention to the closing monologue: “I have to imagine… the kids, the youth… they don’t stop… they don’t believe that music, dancing—the freedom of expression—will be suppressed for much longer. It can’t, that’s against human nature. I believe that the future is near.”
3. Blue Dream
The upward movement captured by ZHU’s sound design insinuates a sense of something on the rise. The track builds gradually rather than returning for a second verse, and we hear some really funky lead synth patterns dazzling high in the mix during the “Blue Dream” breakdown.
This song really takes off. To put it into perspective, I dance like an idiot to this song every time I blast it. The track ends with a chill-beat send-off as ZHU vocalizes the title of the track with a tasty repeated hook.
The title ‘Blue Dream’ actively supports the main concept of the album, “DREAMLAND 2021.” Combined with the charismatic closing monologue from “Distant Lights,” we are noticing a utopic theme developing as ZHU consistently refers to dreaming as essential for inspiring change.
4. How Does It Feel (ft. Channel Tres)
This is the first feature track of the album, and it carries a summer vibe with it. How does it feel? Like I just waxed my Mustang, and the sun is setting on the busy inner-city basketball courts where freedom-hungry twenty-something’s move their feet side to side, trying to outstep the wildcard hand dealt to all of us in 2020.
The mood here clearly goes to funk-hop with the suave vocal feature from Channel Tres and the nasty drum and bass combo. It’s the most cheerful sounding mix we’ve heard thus far, and yet it still contains dark undertones.
5. Sky Is Crying (ft. Yuna)
ZHU’s trippy re-sampled “someday” vocal clips set an emotional trap, while adding tasteful texture to this disco mix. Meanwhile, Yuna’s vocal delivery takes ZHU’s signature sound and puts a sweet and spicy garnish on top. We also hear vintage lead synth tones with classy bends and slides.
The track, though it is upbeat, has a somber mood to it. Evidently, Mr. Zhu has been in a dark place during his most recent months of writing, and we can aptly sense his unease in this, the first single off of DREAMLAND 2021.
If I could be so bold as to interpret the meaning behind the first five tracks, it appears ZHU is dreaming of a worldwide flip in our way of thinking, and part of this flip seems to be achieving things we only dreamed were possible a year ago in the thick of the epidemic.
6. Sweet Like Honey
Beautiful lyricism carries this melodic intro through to the first drum section. The feeling encapsulated is an empty bottle of wine, dripping on its side where nearby rose petals fall silently onto a white tablecloth.
Then things begin to vamp up. We cut to a driving scene on the Gran Turismo circuit (and yes, we’re back in the RX7). The instrumental climaxes of the track take the listener on a cataclysmic exposé through Hollywood backroads in the pouring rain.
7. Yours (ft. Arctic Lake)
In track seven, we witness a mesmerizing vocal feature from Arctic Lake, and it provides an elegant contrast to the album. The instrumentals have a music festival feel to it—another vivid image tactically planted into the listener’s subconscious—and another testament to the multi-sensory nature of ZHU’s precise sound design.
There’s a crisp, up-tempo build around the three-minute mark as dark synth whirls in and agile piano struts underneath Arctic Lake’s sensibly fresh melodies. By the end of the track it feels like I’ve experienced all four seasons, moving from the hot grounds of Coachella, to a winter journey in an evergreen forest, and everywhere in between.
The intro to this track transports me to a lonely LA apartment on a rainy night. The windows are open, the record player’s needle is crackling out into the night, and the lit incense is smoking upwards as the music slowly burns.
When the track picks up, the “SOCO” vocal hook transcends the changes in the mix, as it works in both the intro key and the transposed bridge key. That being said, the harpsichord samples and the sub bass seem to clash down the stretch.
9. Only (ft. Tinashe)
Track nine comes in hot with another on-point vocal feature, and this female celebrity shot feels so right, like a friend of a friend who comes into shoot for the win at a beer-pong party, and the crowd goes wild as the music drops on cue.
10. Zhudio 54
Now is when ZHU goes off and flexes his electronic dance prowess. Zhudio 54 must be a crazy invite-only dance party in an abandoned warehouse, and the mood is so on point. There is not a soul in the building who isn’t getting down to the hard bass and the light show. ZHU is clearly determined to own the dancefloors of Los Angeles.
11. Good4U (ft. Kotathefriend)
Suuuuuuch emotional vibes right from the heart. This is the savviest delivery we’ve felt from the record thus far. Kotathefriend saunters in with a masterful flow in his feature verse, before we witness a long build into a rowdy bridge, leaving you to wonder how this drop is going to hit. Your answer: hard electro haus till your heart stops.
With enough fog machines, and a handful of party favours, this track will absolutely ravage any night club on any night of the week. The extended kick section at the end feels a slight bit sparse, but in a live setting, I would imagine this as a perfect transition into the next heavy house banger.
12. I Need That
In the closing track we find ZHU tiptoeing on his piano again, as we are shuttled to a nightclub in space, where the other-worldly synth bass rattles through the countless PA’s and subwoofers. The experimental vocal clips following the first drop make you want to crane in attentively, but just as you start to understand what he’s saying, the band segues into a lead guitar solo screeching through the mix.
The vocal hook on “I Need That” hits home hard as the track crashes on the LA shores one last time, and with that final climax, the album rounds out with mind-altering lo-pitched vocals which swim between high, wet synth wavs.
I’m almost at a loss for words to describe how emotionally dense this final track is. Simply put, the lyrics are painfully relatable, and the sound selections are effortlessly captivating.
This is a song you can easily connect with on a deep level. What makes it easy? It’s how vulnerable ZHU is in his vocal delivery, and how emotive his instrumentals are on top of that.
It is awfully fitting that an album entitled DREAMLAND 2021 closes out with an inspiring track that emphatically communicates a longing for change.
ZHU has once again flexed his uncanny ability to produce candid electronic bangers. There is no doubt that we are hearing his most expressive, honest music, and I’m sure I won’t be the first to admit just how badly “I Need That” 😉
– by Taylor Odishaw-Dyck
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