What makes Ryan Hemsworth so striking is that he’s a SoundCloud producer who actually has a personality. The alternative EDM producer originally rose to fame by retooling sensual R&B tracks with soft, delicate synths that offer the soothing comfort of a child’s blanket, and his brand has continuously evoked the nostalgic imagery of an internet-era childhood: 8-bit video game soundtracks, fluffy cat GIFs, Netflix and cuddles and so on. In effect, Hemsworth is the ultimate soft boy.
Thus, fans might be disappointed to learn that Hemsworth has trouble translating his hyper-saccharine aesthetic into a cohesive live show. On Saturday night, Hemsworth kicked off ASUC SUPERB’s spring 2016 concert lineup with a surprisingly dance-oriented set in the Student Union’s Pauley Ballroom. No doubt, his lush beats made for a hell of a good time, and the crowd did jive to his eclectic selection of hip-hop bangers. Yet, his crowd-pleasing set was laced with a subtle insecurity that his college-aged audience wouldn’t stick around for the slower, more thoughtfully sensitive songs that have made him famous.
Right after a Flume-esque set from GARREN, a UC Berkeley student producer, Ryan Hemsworth stepped onto stage. The artist was so quiet and so bashful that audience members might have mistaken the star performer for some concert assistant who was about to test the microphone.
As he stood so quietly throughout the performance, the audience’s attention was mainly drawn toward a playful video projection full of kindergarten knick-knacks, such as alphabet stickers, pink markers and toy blocks. The video art was very on-brand, but the imagery drew out the dissonance between Hemsworth’s demure personality and the party-hard energy of his set.
To be fair, Hemsworth showcased an oddly impressive ear for undiscovered hip-hop tracks. Avoiding the obvious choices, the producer had his audience dancing to a slew of rappers who have been under the radar, from Tory Lanez to Cousin Stizz. Hemsworth stirred these artists together with East Bay icons, such as Mac Dre, and low-key club crooners, such as Jeremih and Ty Dolla $ign.
Yet, late into the show, Hemsworth emerged from his silence to say, “This is an old song I made.” The video projection changed into a constellation of quivering white dots against a black background, evoking Beach House’s cover for Bloom. Indeed, the instrumental track did have Beach House’s dreamy, uplifting synths that filled the room with a feather-light atmosphere.
The mood dipped into a moment of peaceful meditation and the song seemed to be a more intimate expression of Hemsworth’s innocent vision of a utopian world that is one big sleepover. Similar moments included his performance of his remixes of Lorde and Blink-182 — other artists who dwell in the pains and joys of youth.
Hemsworth’s focus on hip-hop parallels the ending to “Grease,” when Sandy steps into the camera with a leather jacket and a cigarette. Yes, you’ll fit in with the popular kids. But, Hemsworth, you never really had to change to impress the people who really love you.
One hopes that this new focus on bigger beats isn’t a permanent swerve away from Hemsworth’s soft side. After all, if Hemsworth can’t keep the magic of childhood alive, who can?
Contact Jason Chen at [email protected].