Best of the Month: March 2021
Genesis Owusu -- Smiling With No Teeth
Coming out of nowhere, Ghanaian-Australian musician Genesis Owusu delivers a multi-colored experience on his debut record Smiling With No Teeth. The obscure fresh-faced artist is coming off of a several year-long hiatus starting after a debut EP--Cardrive EP--released in 2017. Now almost 4 years later, Owusu circles back on his hip-hop tones before, while expanding his repertoire with an ambitious record rich with influences of post-punk, industrial, and funk.
Kofi Owusu-Ansah was born in Koforidua, Ghana and immigrated to Australia when he was 2. He came up in the nation’s capital of Canberra where he collaborated with peers exploring hip-hop and R&B. Owusu released his first EP at 18, which is a fiery 19-minute thrill ride of buzzy industrial production and explosive rap performances.
“I wanted to make a whole cohesive project,” says Owusu to Apple Music on his debut full-length record, “I wanted to make something akin to To Pimp a Butterfly and Food and Liquor and all the awesome concept albums that I grew up listening to.” The ambition to kick off his discography with a concept album was ambitious enough but Owusu explains it with full confidence in his work.
“‘Black dog’ is a known euphemism for depression, but I’ve also been called a black dog as a racial slur. So I thought it was an interesting, all-encompassing term for what I wanted to talk about.” So through all of Smiling, Owusu uses these two ‘black dog’ metaphors to comment on depression and racial stereotypes. The illusive rapper was teasing something huge on his debut record, and when it dropped, it did not disappoint.
Smiling With No Teeth starts with “On The Move”, a punk rap intro with skittering industrial drums, letting the listener know that this isn’t your average hip hop album. Right from the entrance, the theme is reinforced with yelps of “BLACK DOGS ON THE MOVE!” The song’s loopy synth effects and buzzy bass synths contrasting with the R&B vocals sound like if Frank Ocean featured on a Death Grips song.
“The Other Black Dog” is a wild gothy banger personifying the black dog of depression, attacking Owusu from the inside out. The ascending synth lines and driving beat make it a truly unique rap song, not to mention Owusu vocals which go from speedy bar spitting to alluring gothic chants. At this point on my first listen, I had no idea where this album would take me, but I knew I couldn’t stop listening.
“Centrefold” is a groovy nu-R&B jam that explores toxic love. Following is its sister track “Waitin’ on Ya” which is Owusu at his most traditional R&B. On these two tracks, we first experience Owusu’s chemistry with his backing band. Both songs are lovestruck ballads that put Owusu’s chameleonic singing voice on display.
The most cheery song on Smiling With No Teeth is “Don’t Need You” which initially comes off as a celebratory break-up song but actually digs a little deeper. The “you” mentioned is actually Owusu’s black dog--depression--which he reveals in lines like “you made a bet today, said, I can’t leave my bed today, you tied me on my chest today, wanna rear your head on a better day.” The song’s incredibly catchy hook mixed with its confrontational attitude to depression is fantastic. I never thought a “fuck depression” kind of song could be this good.
Owusu’s guitarist and alt-pop peer Kirin J. Callinan makes his formal appearance on “Drown” contributing fitting vocal bravado to this pop anthem. Kirin and Owusu trade lines about letting the black dog of depression in themselves drown--”You’ve got to let me drown.” The chittering upbeat new wave vibe is infectious and reeks of dance-punk legends like LCD Soundsystem.
The shimmering R&B “Gold Chains” is a turning point where Owusu begins talking about the other other black dog. Owusu disguises a sexy chorus to ridicule the stereotypes of black male musicians always being rappers: “When it looks so gold but it feels so cold inside these chains.” Callinan’s funk guitar embellishments mix with the hip-hop drums to make a blistering neo-soul rhythm.
The album’s centerpiece is the title track--”Smiling With No Teeth”--an R&B slow jam that channels the minimalist energy of a D’Angelo track. The song is a weaving epic tying together the two black dogs, waxing about his anxieties of expectation and battle with depression. Despites its heavy-handed message the song is coated in R&B warmth with dancing gospel vocals. The song is an adventure, and probably my favorite here.
“I Don’t See Colour” and “Black Dogs!” are both anthems with bones to pick about the black dog of racism. The first of the two delivers the message in a shuffling samba beat and low-key background vocals. The latter of the two is a violent punk interlude that goes for the neck with a grinding bassline and Owusu’s most unhinged vocals.
“Whip Cracker” is Owusu at his most direct. Over a thumping beat, Owusu embraces the expectations society has for him and uses it as a weapon against his oppressors: “Spit up on your grave, hope my thoughts behave, we so depraved.” Then out of nowhere, the beat flips over into this shimmering Prince-inspired funk beat that rides out a groovy jam for the last two minutes of the song. Owusu’s is commandingly funk and this song that started so intensely rolls with its unexpected ending perfectly.
Jumping over to “A Song About Fishing” which is where Owusu signals the third act of the album. Despite his can-do attitude throughout the rest of the narrative, “A Song About Fishing” tackles the anxieties of beating back intrusive thoughts. It’s sobering vocal performances mixed with its gospel chord-progression make it the most human moment of the record, and is one of my favorites.
The two songs that end Smiling are bittersweet. First is “No Looking Back” which Owusu described to Apple Music as “a pop ballad about how I’ve gone through this journey and now I’m finally ready to put these things behind me.” It’s a sweet piece that feels like it should end the album until the true bookend plays, “Bye Bye.”
Genesis Owusu’s debut record Smiling With No Teeth shows an eager musician who has a tenacity for the genres before him and a hunger for experimentation. This album is an opening statement that signals Owusu as one of the most exciting freshmen in the R&B genre, and it also happens to be a damn good listen. [Ben Nguyen O’Connor]
BENNY THE BUTCHER -- The Plugs I Met 2
[The Black Soprano Family]
Griselda member Benny the Butcher released the undeniably strong breakout EP The Plugs I Met in June of 2019, giving listeners a look into the rise of Benny as both a hard-hitting rap artist and a drug-pushing kingpin. With The Plugs I Met 2, Benny has now reached the top, and is reminiscing on the struggles and successes it took to get here. While I believe the first of the two holds stronger tracks, Plugs 2 provides listeners with deeper, more emotional and introspective cuts, all without losing the carefully balanced bars and flows we come to expect from the Butcher.
On the opening track “When Tony Met Sosa”, Benny likens the part of the movie Scarface where Tony meets the Bolivian drug kingpin Alejandro Sosa to the meeting of the Butcher and producer of the album, Harry Fraud. Immediately, the sense of accomplishment against adversity from Benny is seen with the line:
“People say ‘Ayo you saved this rap shit’,
I be like ‘Nah, this rap shit saved me though”
Benny balances the regret he feels of his past actions while still boasting his high-rise life. Indeed, he makes it clear that he wants the rap game to be his life, not the difficult drug dealing game he struggled with for much of his life.
This pride in overcoming obstacles continues on the track “Plug Talk”, with 2 Chainz. The chorus itself is indicative of the lifestyle change Benny is hoping to achieve in full:
“The interviewers talkin’ Plug talk,
Got my name off of drug talk,”
I took to understanding this track as Benny reflecting on times when interviewers would ask him about his gang life, drugs, and crime. These days, however, interviewers had become more interested in his music (with plug talk being a reference to the album itself).
“Y’all hear the sounds of pot scrapin’,
Me I just need music”
Benny seems to call out other people who are living the life he used to live. Benny is happy to come out of the life of selling drugs and embrace the full persona of a celebrity rapper.
Benny is sure to hold his own in terms of a ‘tough-guy’ personality that we have grown to love with songs such as “Live by It” and “No Instructions”. While Benny may not be making and selling drugs anymore, he still faces violence and handles it with ease. Benny paints himself as an untouchable leader of the rap and street game. Money and guns talk, which he proves with the line “Send a shooter here, I’ll send em back.”
Benny talks about much of this violence in such a nonchalant way, which I believe actually helps his credibility, as he doesn’t feel the need to prove himself, he has already made it.
Regarding features, there is a bit of a mixed bag on this album. Both Fat Joe and 2 Chainz fit effortlessly into the image of wealth and power produced on this album, but French Montana’s verse fell short for me unfortunately. Still, producer Harry Fraud ensures that the soul-samples maintain a consistent sound throughout the album, fitting into the mafia kingpin aesthetic that Benny the Butcher has lived and fulfilled. Benny illustrates how other rappers can lie on their songs, which can lead to fans idolizing the wrong things in the rap industry. Benny’s voice is perhaps the perfect medium to portray this message, as he has lived through the highs and lows of gang life. This allows him to criticize these false rappers while providing valuable insight to the fans who have not come close to living such a difficult life. [Trey Mead]
Listen To: “No Instructions”
RIYL: Conway the Machine, Elcamino, Armand Hammer
Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders -- Promises (feat. The London Symphony Orchestra)
Promises is the unlikely collaboration of two sparsely different musicians: modern minimalist British house producer Floating Points AKA Sam Shepherd and legendary spiritual jazz pioneer and tenor sax legend Pharaoh Sanders. The two of them come together on Promises with a composition backed by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) that has been received with universal acclaim.
Honestly, even as a fan of each of these artists before this, I could not have expected this collaboration to happen. But apparently the connection started in 2015 when Sanders caught wind of the Shepherd’s debut LP under Floating Points titled Elaenia and was impressed. From there, Sanders contacted Shepherd and after a bit of conversation, they decided they’d like to do a collaborative project.
While Shepherd has been on a streak as of late with critically-acclaimed debut and then the follow-up Crush in 2019, Pharaoh Sanders hasn’t worked on a studio album in over a decade. So like everyone else, I had no idea what to expect. A collaboration between a classically-trained producer, an experimental jazz legend, and the London Symphony Orchestra? Interests were piqued across all the scenes surrounding each collaborator. And when the record was released, we were happy to know that all the attention it got was more than warranted.
Promises is a hard record to describe. The album is made of one 45-minute long composition split into nine movements composed by Shepherd, who also plays pianos, synths, and keyboards. The genre is what I can only describe as an ambient symphony, that features a taste of neo-psychedelia, contemporary classical, and--with Pharaoh Sanders’s help--spiritual jazz. It’s hard to try and condense the immense scale of this record into words without picking it apart step by step.
“Movement 1” opens with this short but sweet motif played by Shepherd, introducing this delicate but warm sense of wonder that will guide the mood of the entire record. As the motif repeats, Sanders enters with feathery saxophone phrases glide across the mix like waves lapping on a moonlit beach. The motif continues, never sounding the same twice, as the whispering strings of the LSO coats the walls of your ears.
“Movement 2” continues with similar instrumentation as the preceding movement but with a heightened sense of tension. The saxophone licks ring more like wailing than whispers and the string sections cut hard like beams of the northern lights slicing across the deep, dark sky. Conversely, “Movement 3” is a synth-forward section where Shepherd uses a bundle of vocal synths to deliver a surprisingly human element. The timid mutter of the lead synth sounds like a church choir’s young male lead, quiet but spry, weak but nimble.
Sanders enters “Movement 4” with wordless vocal inflections that reach right into your ear, contrasting the immense space built by echoing strings and reverberating tenox sax. The saxophone lines are more kinetic, and imply a sense of progression as it bursts into “Movement 5.” This movement is a final movement in the first half of the record, but paints a starkly different landscape than the beginning. As opposed to the opener, “Movement 5” features prideful sax lines that prances like a yelping puppy, eager to play.
It was here that I interpreted the sense of emotional progression on Promises. Each movement feels like another step on an intense spiritual journey, like climbing a mountain to its peak. The different plateaus and moods reflect the feelings of hesitation and determination that conflict within the music.
And the tumultuous journey reaches a point of unparalleled momentum in “Movement 6,” where the listener is delivered the strongest string sections on the record. Shepherd and Sanders stand aside to let different coalitions of the orchestra flush within the mix, to create the most awesome musical experience I’ve heard this year. The whole song is a slow emotional build, adding more harmonies and volume with each runaround on the motif. At this point in the journey, there’s this feeling of meditation and melancholy when looking back. The overwhelming sense of forward motion on this album is utterly beautiful and definitely makes for one of the most gripping moments on the record and maybe all year.
The elastic tension of the preceding track stretches and stretches until silence, and the comforting solace left in the wake opens “Movement 7,” the longest part of Promises. The track leads with a gentle saxophone lead charged with feelings of lament and regret. But as the song progresses, these kaleidoscopic synth textures begin to surround the mix until the motif of the album completely drops out. Unlike the musical warmth in the preceding track, “Movement 7” feels like witnessing the all-knowing and all-encompassing power of a higher being, and the buzzing collage of warbling synth tones represent the humble human senses, trying to interpret the beauty. Just when the sight of God seems like too much to bear, Sanders’s glorious saxophone and the comforting musical motif rise from the dust and guide the listener back to Earth.
“Movement 8” is the soulful comedown from the preceding track, using whirring organs to carry the listener after almost being consumed by the climax of the journey. A familiar form of the motif returns, but is eerily unlike the original, like the status quo after witnessing the spiritual peak will never be the same. As the movement progresses, holy organs overcome the mix, shrouded in delay and reverb like a spiritual vision. The organs increase in volume enough to shake the ground until suddenly--silence.
The coda comes after a false ending with “Movement 9,” echoing earlier melodies to cap-off the album. The shrill strings hit like an epiphany has been reached, and the purpose of the journey in Promises has been fulfilled. The album’s meta-journey was not to change the game or reinvent the wheel however. No, the purpose of Promises is for two unlikely collaborators to share a bit of the best sides of themselves in a beautiful, spiritual, and cinematic journey. No, I don’t think the album is perfect, and it’s fine that it isn’t. What Promises brings is its unique appreciation of several genres, and combining them into a fantastic listening experience. [Ben Nguyen O’Connor]
RIYL: Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane
Fake Fruit -- Fake Fruit
[Rocks in Your Head]
After five years of being together the band releases, indie punks Fake Fruit release their self-titled debut on March 5th to Rocks in your Head Records. The label is run by multi-instrumentalist Sonny Smith, frontman of the Sunsets, whose label has been increasing in popularity for hosting hot indie punk bands on the West Coast. And Fake Fruit’s debut fits right into their catalog, with all the staples of indie rock/art punk fusion bands of today plus an edge of authenticity and spirit.
Fake Fruit’s self-titled debut has been five years in the making. The band has been a shifting coalition beginning in New York, then moving to Toronto, and now Oakland, California where they assembled the lineup for the debut record. The band’s members have changed since conception but has always been led by singer, guitarist, and lead songwriter Hannah D’Amato. With guitarist Alex Post, bassist Martin Miller, and drummer Miles MacDiarmid, Fake Fruit delivers one of the most electrifying and biting punk albums of the year so far.
The album is a tight 30-minute bout, jumping from one art punk banger to another. And Fake Fruit wears a colorful variety of influences on their sleeve from the throttling song lengths of punk pioneers like Wire to the slacker rock melodies from 90s cornerstones like Pavement. And the band’s x-factor comes from singer D’Amato’s slacker sprechgesang which reeks of Courtney Barnett--if Barnett was furiously angry. While the influence worship is blatant in their music, Fake Fruit’s blend of sounds are tasteful, and is greater than the sum of their influences.
The energy starts at the catchy opener “No Mutuals,” which sees D’Amato calling out the oddities of parasocial internet relationships: “I don’t wanna wait/to be christened as/cooooool.” The song manages to insert this infectious vocal melody into less than three minutes, and makes for one of the most memorable cuts here. Other instances of pop brilliance like on “Keep You” and “Don’t Put It On Me” show the band’s tenacity for tight, hooky songwriting. My favorite bits are where the band manages to flip seamlessly from dissonant grooves to shouty pop melodies, and never loses my attention doing it.
But the boon of Fake Fruit is in their biting punk energy on tracks like “Old Skin,” where the band relies on their chemistry and strong performances to deliver a wild journey of emotions in just over a minute. It’s songs like these where the band’s commitment to even the smallest ideas is shown to be their strength, like on “Miscommunication” where D’Amato and company play a staggering no-wave riff that’s both disorienting and exhilarating. The band’s humor is in fullform on “Lying Legal Horror Lawyers” where D’Amato takes the piss out of male fragility, contrasting with breakbeat speeds.
The album’s weakness lies in its lack of variety on a few of the tracks. By the latter half of the project, it feels like the band might be painting themselves into a corner with these riffs. But the commitment to the sound is appreciated, and results in a record that is consistently thrilling and never lulls. Fake Fruit’s debut is promising for a band on their debut, and shows a punk band with confidence in their band chemistry and songwriting ability. [Ben Nguyen O’Connor]
RIYL: Courtney Barnett, Wire, Pavement