Remember this old chestnut? It’s been a couple years since we last ran a Wave // Breaker post, our avenue to cover synthwave and it’s related synth-based offshoots. With this being the case, you can safely assume that there’s an excellent album behind this overdue revival. I’ve followed Saint Pepsi (stage name of Ryan DeRobertis) from a distance for a little while now but never fully embraced any of his projects. He frequently crafts fantastic synth funk hits like “Cherry Pepsi” and “Challenger,” but the albums they appear on never stuck with me past an initial listen. With Mannequin Challenge, he’s finally crafted a release that checks all the boxes you expect from vaporwave while crafting a sneakily good electronic album in the process.
That doesn’t mean DeRobertis ignored the need for danceable bangers, though. He kicks of the album with a short intro that leads into “I Need Your Love In Me,” one of the best tracks he’s ever written. It’s a sample-heavy nu-disco cut with liberal but clever use of strings and horns, paired with an underlying dedication to punchy funk grooves. What makes the song even more impressive is how it constantly evolves and never truly revolves around a definitive chorus. There’s a repeating motif that DeRobertis tinkers with throughout, but it continuously shifts and spreads its wings into different directions, covering a fair bit of ground in its 3-minute run time.
The central component of the album’s success is how effectively it touches on different corners of the vaporwave blueprint. Immediately after breaking out the disco ball, DeRobertis breaks into some short but lush jams on “The Party Line” and “Visions.” With a similarly strong focus on samples, these tracks again feel like a bricolage of ideas that DeRobertis blends beautifully and seamlessly. Speaking to my comment about Mannequin Challenge as a complete album experience, it’s impressive how he slows the pace down after such a danceable track yet maintains intrigue and all the while.
But before long, the upbeat, summery vibes return. “Sea Tea” uses strong anime vibes to create a whimsical, breezy excursion, while “Greg” leans on powerful soul vocals and a thumping beat which mandates the listener dance in whatever way is mot appropriate in their current setting. Even the shorter bangers hit hard, like the glitzy, horn-driven “Bech Presley.” The bass lines on this track are some of the finest grooves you’ll find on the album and the genre overall. “Egg McCay” takes the album’s orchestral and funk vibes to a whole new level, with a 1-2-3 combo fo strings, horns, and bass that recalls the high points of Earth, Wind & Fire‘s discography.
Before the short, soulful finale of “God, Pt. 2,” the album closes out with a two-part mission statement for vaporwave. “Myself When I Am Real” is pure ’80s soft rock in all its corny glory, complete with Kenny G sax worship and a gratuitously laid back pace and overall presentation. Meanwhile, “Mr. Wonderful, Pt. 2” is a triumphant gospel-inspired track that sounds like the into to The College Dropout or Late Registration era Kanye. DeRobertis double down on these themes with an erratic breakbeat, and huge bass drops as the track progresses, bringing the gospel rap reference full circle.
Mannequin Challenge is actually the the first Saint Pepsi project DeRobertis has recored in some time, a revival that coincided with with his own mental health improvements. With the level of quality exhibited on the album, it’s hard to believe he ever took a hiatus. This is one of the most enjoyable and dynamic vaporwave albums I’ve heard in some time, and for anyone looking for a genuinely fun listen, this should among the first albums under consideration.