Jon Bellion might not sound familiar by name to the general public, but once exposed to his vibrant work, his sound is hard to forget. On the inside of the music industry he reached widespread recognition when he was credited for writing the chorus in Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster” and provided Jason Derulo with the track “Trumpets”. In 2016 Bellion came out with his first commercial album, The Human Condition, which produced singles that achieved radio exposure such as ‘Overwhelming’ and ‘All Time Low’ which reached 16th on Billboard’s “Hot 100” in January of 2017. Upon release, The Human Condition debuted at #5 just one spot below Beyoncé’s Lemonade. A couple years earlier he was featured as the singer on a track produced by Zedd titled “Beautiful Now”, and early this November, Bellion released his new album Glory Sound Prep.
Bellion himself collects the titles of singer, rapper, writer and producer on his works. He could be a one-man band with his beat pad and keyboard, but with his love of collaboration and passion for sharing music he is always bringing his friends and colleagues into the mix. Bellion creates music for the art of it as well as the personal and global affects it can carry, which are characteristics that are seemingly uncommon in the modern era of pop culture; and by association, music, which is overtaken by narcissism and ‘self-discovery’. In his album, The Human Conditon, Bellion tackles all of these topics in a personable, playful, and digestible manner. Each track on the album holds its own unique concoction of technological properties and musical qualities, but the record that remains the most resonant is “The Hand of God”.
“The Hand of God” is Bellions closing track on the concept album The Human Condition. This song serves as the final revelation that he has to give and was strategically created around being the final track. Structurally, it serves as a commemoration and celebration of the previous songs on the record. In order to be able to fully appreciate the record on its own, one must be given insight into the aesthetic of the album as well as Bellion as an artist. Throughout his work Bellion aims for pieces that hold a sort of profound simplicity. He designed each song around the task of creating an “audible iPhone”. At face value an iPhone appears quite uncomplicated, “it’s a square and yet it’s artistically intriguing with all the things that are happening”; but it is also “user friendly”. His music is understandable to both a child and an adult where the child will focus on one thing and the adult will focus on another. This comes as no surprise because one of his greatest influences is Pixar. Though it might not make sense initially, it is evident in his sound, “imagine The Incredibles or Finding Nemo with those lovable, colorful lush musical landscapes over J-Dilla hip-hop beats. That’s my sound”. This applies to all of his songs, but for the album, The Human Conditon, the very concept of the album centers around the creative importance of telling stories as well as achieving something musically interesting and enjoyable. Each individual track even has its own ‘Pixar-esque’ “movie poster” to accompany and guide the listener through the chromatic experience and loose narrative.
The digital influence on his style is also heavily noted in his pieces and is not only understood as the method of creation, but embraced as another key aspect of his aesthetic. His main instrument is his beat pad which he gives life through pre-generated samples along with his own homemade samples. Now, these ‘homemade’ samples are not the typical, composed from the captured note of a physical instrument. Bellion creates his “library of sounds” samples from any sound that could be produced by his mouth or voice. For example, an “808 thump” was made from the combination of him “burping and putting it through autotune”. Throughout the album, one can hear Bellion’s voice underneath the heavy digitization of the samples he sprinkles all throughout his records; and to the unknowing listener are curious and fascinating embellishments rather than comical and somewhat genius drumrack hacks. Original sound samples made by simply transposing human sounds higher or lower, putting them through autotune, or whatever desired filter is not a common practice in popular music and gives Bellion the advantage in releasing material the public has truly never heard before. He is doing what “laptop musicians” are supposed to be doing and “using their performance equipment to change and rearrange the textural and formal patterns of the material they play and to combine and juxtapose sounds from many diverse sources”. His single “All Time Low” provides the most obvious combination of voice samples on the album. What Bellion is essentially doing with these samples is like some sort of advanced beat boxing as he downloads these sound samples into his beat pad, which is essential to Jon’s ability to produce music since he does not actually know how to read music. He notes the reliance and dedication to his beatpad as the narrative drawn out on the album’s series of cover art as it had to have three elements of himself, a “young Jon, current Jon, and the old Jon…and there should always be a beat pad”. This notion of advanced beat boxing is also quite appropriate to the conceptual arrangement of the songs as the first track, ‘He Is The Same’, begins with Bellion beat boxing and evolves into a digital soundscape. In the art that does not contain a beat pad, there is the overwhelming futuristic and technological aspect. This can be seen in the illustrations for “iRobot”, in which Bellion is portrayed as half-man half-robot, and “80’s film”, which pays homage to both 80’s films Back to the Future and Tron. Bellion always incorporates the use of the digital to create a nostalgic yet futuristic vibe. His obscure samples aid in the portrayal of this, but it should be noted that Bellion also utilizes basic drumkit samples. However, it is his use of these foreign sounds that make his work stand out from the crowd as his hip hop beats and bouncy tunes, combined with soul make it a bit difficult for Bellion’s work to be confined to a single genre of music.
Bellion wrote The Human Condition around what it is like to be human, which encompasses a wide range of experiences and emotions. It seems rather fitting that his music would be somewhat genre-less. The best example of how Bellion addresses his main conceptual and aesthetic goals, while maintaining his signature style is the track ‘The Hand of God’. His use of sound within the song directs the listeners’ understanding of the lyrics. To read the lyrics alone, without the enrichment of colorful sounds, does not relay the full effect. Even an acoustic version would carry a much more solemn tone, whereas the recorded version holds daunting lyrics over an enticing drumbeat and vocal samples that give a sense of hope above doubt. Every pop, synth, hihat, and snare, works to create a specific atmosphere. He layers his own voice on the pre-chorus multiple times as the main layer belts out “I am just a man/I am just a man/ Sometimes I lose my way”. There are multiple layers underneath in a more monotoned style, and a softer layer of the lyrics as well that only becomes apparent in the lyric “Sometimes I lose my way”. Bellion even adds a quiet layering of his voice, that pops in and out, under the main chorus as well, which serves as the precursor to this track’s “lush musical landscape”.
This sonic mural is decorated with a series of “ba” vocal samples dripping with reverb that are joined by a bright filtered synth. The listener can also pick out a looped sound that follows along the beat of the track which was transposed and coated in reverb that comes across as a “whoop” sound. The whole baseline on the track was put together on Bellion’s beat pad with drum samples, alongside voice samples, recorded and manipulated during creation. Various tracks on the album go between the digital audio workstations (DAW) of Logic and Ableton Live. The advantage of working with DAWs is that they allow a “flexibility that a more traditional style of songwriting does not” where different “processes can occur simultaneously”, such as recording and composing, while still allowing room for “quick digital manipulations” to take place, without causing issues. They are also wonderful in easily pulling together instrumental, vocals, and digital samples together in a way that sounds “natural and organic” which was achieved in the making of this track and album by deliberately not following the “rule of quantization”. Bellion often uses his beatpad to create a baseline and then brings in added instrumentals, if so desired, at a later point. In the case of “The Hand of God” instrumentals and a choir were brought into the mix. Still, the majority of the song is carried by the underlying digitally produced sounds. Even when the choir enters in the second half of the song, the choir takes the lead, but Bellion worked to use sound as a method of rising action to follow and lift the lyrics sung. The importance of ‘build up’ in this section of the song is essential to its resonance as a singular piece, as well as the closing piece of the concept album. To create the full blown effect, Bellion had the choir sing various choruses of the songs in the album in groups to then be tastefully layered over one another in the studio after recording. Every new addition to the compilation of lyrics and singers is accompanied by a similar bright synth, as utilized in the earlier parts of the track, that emanates this glorifying feeling of the whole production. As the choir segments come together to an epic climax, the peak is quickly drawn out with reverb and all sound is sucked into an awe like thud, as the track closes with a ‘beep’ that mimics the one that begins the first track of the album. ‘The Hand of God’ delivers an impressive conclusion to an already captivating album. To the average listener, he produces tracks with interesting lyrics and an alluring beat; but anyone who listens closer will be able to hear the audible depth of the entire track, and how what was thought was instrumental does not quite sound like something they recognize. Those who care to explore the whole album will find there is a whole world awaiting them within The Human Condition.
Although Jon Bellion might not be a household name there is reason for how an artist so few have heard of, could beat out artists such as Adele and Rihanna on Bilboard’s top 10 debut chart. Bellion’s strong and colorful aesthetic and unique approach to music pulls people in and into the realm of his very own Pixar film. His audiovisual wizardry brings his records the ability to make the listener feel in color, and his track “The Hand of God” provides its very own spiritual journey in the course of a five-minute song. Jon Bellion’s affinity for morphing sound makes it seem as though he reinvented sound in music, and in all honesty, I believe he did.


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