Filed under: album, review | Tags: a badly broken code, charlotte richardson andrews, dessa
A Badly Broken Code ••••
Dessa, born Margret Wander, is the only female member of Minneapolis hip hop collective Doomtree, though as she’s pointed out recently, she’d rather be your favourite MC than your favourite female MC. A solo album has been long overdue, though the delay is no surprise considering her schedule; she teaches music at a local college, sings in an “almost all-girl a cappella group” The Boy Sopranos and has published poetry in her tome Spiral Bound. But with production help from various Doomtree siblings, Big Jess of Unknown Prophets, a touch of violin from Pink’s recent tour mate Jessy Greene and some vocal additions from Lupe Fiasco collaborator and fellow Minnapolis native Mathew Santos, A Badly Broken Code was born. Terrific code-encrypted sleeve art to puzzle over comes from MK Larada, accompanied by a full book of lyrics, completing a package created with love, thought and dedicated artistry.
Comprehensively, this is a intricate, bare-bones debut throbbing with raw emotions and the most exquisite wordplay you’ll hear this year. From the disturbing to the seductive, Dessa’s tales are refined and delivered through an intelligent, eloquent syntax, every song rich with painstaking detail and an introspective polemic too self-aware to skirt anywhere near indulgent. ‘Children’s Work’ opens the album like a rite of passage, introducing a girl that “grew up with a book in her bag / got these dark circles before I was ten”, an unflinchingly honest reveal that sets a pattern for the rest of the album. ‘Mine Shaft II’ turns bitter metaphors into visceral realities, while ‘The Chaccone’ rings a hauntingly grim narrative with aesthetic motifs and austere violins. Whether this album belongs under the gargantuan label of hip hop though, is a current source of debate amongst bloggers and rap opinionists.
Indie/alt hip hop has broadened the genre’s conventions, but as with any devoted demographic there will be purists who cling staunchly to ‘the rules’. A Badly Broken Code splits the more archaic regulations with fine precision by employing zero female/self exploitation, a distinct lack of male aping, and cuts devoid of hyperbolic, aggressive bravado; but if hip hop is about intelligent, evocative lyricism and brutally honest narratives, Dessa is the real deal. Leftfield beats also compound the untraditional atmosphere; a cappella harmonies and choral magic weave throughout, and veins of everything from classical to country create an irregular soundtrack just a little too experimental to be consistent. The best numbers roll with more orthodox rhythms such as the melodramatic, jazz inflected beats of ‘Dixon’s Girl’ and the tight flow and dynamic hook of ‘Matches To Paper Dolls’.
Also throwing up that ‘is it genuine hip hop?’ question is Dessa’s vocal delivery. She glides between silken, sung notes and spoken verse, but unlike the fierce flows of Lauryn Hill, Dessa takes cues from her earlier, spoken word poetry days, eschewing the rigidly rhythmic patter of rhyming rap. She sways around her beats rather then pinning to them, and her cadence and humour calls to mind the wry, soulful folk of Ani DiFranco more than any hip hop contemporary. Dessa describes herself on the Doomtree ode ‘Crew’ as “half Dorothy Parker, half April O’Neil”, and there’s certainly a classic, Parker-esque poise in her old-soul anecdotes along with an overwhelming sense of profound, existential searching, a theme only to be expected from an artist with a degree in philosophy.
Relationships, love and gender are entwining concerns throughout the album, but Dessa explores these through a universal dynamic of the soul rather than taking an orthodox, gendered stance. She tackles sexism in hip hop with witty humour in ‘The Bullpen’ and, as she spits on ‘Children’s Work’, she’s more than aware of “how to earn my keep / how to clean my kill”. A Badly Broken Code is dark and demanding in a way that intellectuals will appreciate, and though she may have a doubly hard time in an industry that prefers its minority of female MCs squeezed into gender archetypes, she’s got a pretty good shot at being an artist recognised neither despite nor because of her sex. Dessa succeeds because she delivers equal parts elegance and grit and refuses to compromise her refreshingly intense artistic identity.
Charlotte Richardson Andrews
UK release date: 19/01/10; www.myspace.com/dessadarling
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