Every year, I’ll hear an album that I assume everyone loves, only to be left wondering why more people don’t love it. I remember playing Common’s Electric Circus in 2002, falling instantly for the psychedelic rap, soul and rock of the songs “Aquarius,” “Come Close” and “Jimi Was a Rock Star.” Fans didn’t dig it; some of them blamed his then-girlfriend Erykah Badu for its eccentric direction. In 2013, Black Milk, an accomplished rapper and producer from Detroit, released what I thought was one of the year’s best rap albums with No Poison No Paradise, a semi-autobiographical walk through his upbringing that used gospel, jazz and electro-funk to convey the nuance of adolescence and young adulthood. Critics thought it was cool, but not a knockout, citing his lyrical ineffectiveness as a supposed hindrance.
Old feelings arose this past spring, when, after listening to an early copy of Mndsgn’s (pronounced Mind Design) Rare Pleasure, I just knew we’d all be here for this album. I mean, who could deny its sun-drenched soul? Those billowing arrangements? The way it feels like an heirloom but also a modern R&B suite featuring some of today’s best musicians? Just look at the lineup: Swarvy on bass and guitar; Kiefer on keys; Will Logan on drums; Carlos Niño on percussion; Miguel Atwood-Ferguson on strings; and Fousheé and Anna Wise on backing vocals. These are all A-plus musicians with their own noted works, yet here they are in one space, lending their talents to this unprecedented studio session. While Mndsgn’s name appears alone on the front cover, Rare Pleasure is very much a team effort. The band crafts a stellar set of music that just sort of drifts along, swirling around bright notes that signify a new path forward for the protagonist. Still, upon its release in June, it seemed people only whispered about this album; shouting was more appropriate.
Up to this point, Mndsgn had been known as a beatmaker, not so much a conductor of live arrangements. Born Ringgo Ancheta in San Diego and raised in southern New Jersey, he was introduced to hip-hop culture and beatmaking by his older brother. By 2008, the budding producer — who had been posting his work on MySpace — linked with like-minded producers Suzi Analogue, Devonwho and Knxwledge, forming a new collective called Klipmode. The group uploaded its music to Bandcamp, developing a cult following that launched their respective careers. Mndsgn moved to Los Angeles in 2011, where he self-released instrumental tapes and played various clubs throughout the city. He soon caught the attention of Stones Throw Records, the vaunted label that released this classic; in 2014, he put out his debut album, Yawn Zen, a mostly-instrumental collection of downtempo beats and ambient soundscapes.
Mndsgn broke through two years later: His sophomore album, Body Wash, a multifaceted mix influenced by ‘80s boogie and funk and ‘90s R&B, showed the creative strides he’d made in a short time. It was a fully-formed record with fleshed-out songs, pronounced vocals and mesmerizing grooves, far beyond the nice yet half-sketched compositions of Yawn Zen. With Body Wash, it was clear that Mndsgn wasn’t just a guy pressing pads on a beat machine, he was a developed artist whose music scanned several eras and genres.
The genesis of Rare Pleasure dates back to 2018, when Mndsgn started sketching rough drafts that would become this album. Not one to stay in the same creative place for long, the work he compiled involved melodic blends of jazz, soul and soundtrack music — the feeling of sunrise over the ocean. The album arrived in a world still grappling with the stress of a global pandemic, where many are suffering through isolation and existential despair. On purpose, Rare Pleasure feels like a warm embrace, doubling as a gentle reminder that you’re not alone. That explains the track “Hope You’re Doin’ Better,” which Mndsgn wrote in the wake of a loved one’s endeavor with mental illness. The lyrics bolster that togetherness. He sings:
Indeed, in those down moments, there’s a feeling that you have to work through them in solitude. You convince yourself that everyone’s busy, that the looming gray clouds are just temporary. You don’t realize that others are battling the same strife, that the issues aren’t resolved without community. You have to repeat these things to yourself to avoid falling into deeper distress. The album itself focuses on repetition as therapy, through four variations of the title track. The first three versions are slow and meditative; the last is an upbeat blast of nostalgic jazz fusion. When listened to after the album’s best track, “Medium Rare,” it feels like a cathartic moment: the melancholy has dissipated and better days are ahead.
To that end, “Medium Rare” might be the best song in Mndsgn’s catalog. Over spacious piano chords and drifting strings, he urges us to move past stillness. “Fear is just a comfy queen-size bed,” he sings. “Won't you get up and start your day?” Elsewhere on the LP, there are tracks about the wonders of self-love (“Colours of the Sunset”) and the beauty of new romance (“Slowdance”). On “Masque,” Mndsgn laments the facade; it’s OK to simply be yourself.
I would never call Mndsgn underrated; doing that negates the fanbase he’s earned. But I can’t help but wonder why more people aren’t praising this album, given its superiority to certain mainstream records with bigger marketing budgets. If a certain Chicago-born producer did this, it would be deemed a classic. The literati would proclaim his reascendance, ignoring the past several years of Twitter rants and TMZ moments. We should start discussing Mndsgn as one of the world’s greatest producers, underground or otherwise. Rare Pleasure is the brightest spot in a still-growing catalog of limitless potential.