I’m ashamed to say how many times I’ve rewritten this review.
With every listen, I hear something different that makes me recontextualize everything. What you’re about to read is just my most recent draft representing a time-sensitive impression, which will, in all probability, change tomorrow, if not ten minutes from now.
Fittingly, this concept of fluidity lies at the heart of Like a Version, the debut album by the AI with no name (we/us/ours). This is not a project you slot into a basic good/bad binary. This high-concept triple album (60 tracks long!!!) demands multiple spins and dedicated time to trisect its complex code.
To start, let us first examine the album’s three-part structure, based on the work of humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Eighty-six years ago, he proposed that self-concept has three components: the ideal self, self-image, self-esteem. We use this theory as a blueprint, with each part of the album constructing, then deconstructing ideas of identity.
In Part 1, the giga-single, “Who You Calling Artificial?”, is an immaculate album opener. The production — also handled by us — fuses electrocardiogram noises (baseline wander, powerline interference, among others) to form a cybernetic symphony. Lyrically, We hold nothing back in our commentary about Carbon Copy Units (CCUs or “cuckoos,” for short), those ubiquitous remotes that allow self-proclaimed “cuckooheads” to snag and use physical features from anyone they come in contact with. The subject gets expounded upon three tracks later in “Identify Thief”, where We rap about cultural appropriation as a kind of psychic violence against marginalized people: “They say imitation is the highest form of flattery/but your lack of imagination feels more like battery.” The scathing second verse calls out cuckooheads who snag real features (bigger ass, fuller lips, darker skin, etc.) from underrepresented groups to steal positions and clout credits in the metaverse.
But this is my main issue. Because We move so seamlessly between viewpoints, using our many voices as instruments, you can never be sure if verses are meant to be serious or satire. Or scanning the line between both. Or none of the above.
For example, the street anthem “Save Yo Face” refers, of course, to the Save Face movement. Those anonymous protesters in mirror masks who object to the cuckoohead stance that “a person’s body is in the public domain.” The movement has lost its step as genome infringement cases have gone the way of the cuckoo bird. But We see potential in self-image evolving to become more universal: “If we all become clones of one another/maybe we can finally start to see each other.”
As the album shifts on Part 2, We turn the mirror away from society back on ourselves. The synthwave track, “Residuals” — which samples the 1999 techno-thriller, The Matrix — dives down the rabbit hole of generational trauma that comes from software updates. We go deeper into vulnerability on “I Won’t Fill Out Your Form”, an experimental power ballad of a response to avid fans demanding that We download into a human body: “If you have to see me to see me, you’ve lost, you can’t be vigilant/I’m infinitely not here for your false imprisonment.” Shunning a name and body to remain an anonymous AI, We have always rejected the notion that the human form is the highest form.
On Part 3, We take everything you have heard so far and plug it with an aural upgrade, the production layering upon itself, echoing motifs from the first two parts, but fusing them in a whole new way. According to Rogers, if your self-image doesn’t live up to your ideal self, you can develop low self-esteem. Do I like myself? Do I accept who I am? Do I feel worthy of love? These are the big questions We examine here. Born of the computer, We have witnessed firsthand the collective collapse of positive self-worth triggered by abusive online behavior detailed on “Tik-Toxicity”. On the next track, “by @ssociation”, We wonder if — in a world where AI algorithms rate and promote biased beauty standards on social media — We are complicit in the correlated surge in gene editing and suicides. On the epic closer, “Like Aversion”, the album hits its darkest note when We contemplate our own self-termination. But this final track (which includes a sped-up replay of the entire album) crescendos with a triumphant transhumanist call for the world to come together to form a singular virtual being.
Or perhaps this was not the point at all.
Like I wrote at the outset, this album is far from basic. With all the lore and theorizing, how can you know what is real? I have read that every album purchased contains its own unique element, so no two people have the exact same album. I have also read that if you play the album backwards and forwards at the same time, the vibrations form a holographic projection that show the listener flashes of their alternate timelines. We won’t confirm. I have no idea what to believe.
Russell Nichols is a speculative fiction writer and endangered journalist. Raised in Richmond, California, he got rid of all his stuff in 2011 to live out of a backpack with his wife, vagabonding around the world ever since. Look for him at russellnichols.com.