Saturday, December 21, 2013

album review: 'parts of speech' by dessa

Exactly one hundred video reviews ago, I talked about the debut album from Colette Carr called Skitszo - which, much to my surprise, actually turned out to be pretty decent. I mean, this was a white female rapper who pulled half of her inspiration from Eminem and the other half from the Spice Girls, it would make sense to expect questionable results. Fortunately for everyone, Colette Carr proved to a good performer, and Skitszo wasn't a half bad album.

But If that album highlighted anything, it only served to show how very few albums existed from female rappers, let alone ones that actually produced viable hits. And the sad fact is that it actively seems to be getting worse - at least in the late-90s and early 2000s we had acts like Missy Elliott and Lil Kim and Lauryn Hill who had mainstream success, but who can you say fills that role now? The only two that spring to mind is Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., with the former squandering her talent making increasingly bland luxury rap and the latter losing momentum in recent years.

Fortunately, there are still female rappers making music, and great music at that - unfortunately, they tend to be underground acts, and today, we're going to be talking about one that really caught me by surprise: Dessa, a member of the Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree. When she released her album Parts of Speech back in September, I initially passed it over (mostly because I was swamped in September), but after hearing some rave reviews and recommendations, I figured I should go back into her discography and get a feel for her music.

Man, I'm glad I did that, because Dessa is awesome. With a measured yet forceful flow, baroque-pop inspired production with a ton of flavour and texture, a superb singing voice, and strikingly intelligent lyrics, Dessa's first two records (that have significant overlap) A Badly Broken Code and Castor, The Twin were memorable and easily rose above the conventional topics in mainstream rap. And thus, I was kind of psyched to listen to her new album Parts of Speech - how did it turn out?

Well, it's very good and definitely enjoyable... but as an album, Parts of Speech isn't quite clicking for me in the same way her previous records were and I think I finally have a handle on why. And yet even with that, it has a shot to make my list of the best albums of the year - yes, that's how good this woman is!

What's important to stress is that in the balance that Dessa has maintained between hip-hop and R&B on her albums, this record definitely skews towards the R&B end of the spectrum - and here's where we run into the first nitpick I have with this album. Don't get me wrong, she's a great R&B singer - soulful, energetic, with a gift for smartly written lyrics and a theatrical style that lends a lot of dramatic flair to her delivery, and yet able to convey quiet vulnerability when she has to - but one of Dessa's biggest strengths is that her flow as a rapper is unique and one of the elements that makes her a distinctive presence even before we get to her content. As such, I can't help but feel a shift towards R&B might not play to all of Dessa's strengths as a vocalist or songwriter.

On top of that, I can't say I'm entirely in favour of the shift in instrumental direction either. Eschewing the classical or folk inspired hip-hop beats in favour of something more modern isn't a bad shift, and Dessa still brings enough of her own unique flavour - the piano, acoustic guitar and strings sections are thankfully going nowhere - and her brand of organic, rich production to make the tracks sound distinctive and immersive (although some of the instrumentation does sound a little tinny at points). But some of the melody lines have suffered in the transition towards more icy percussion, and considering that Dessa's hooks have never been consistently strong, a shift towards a less-melody defined direction might not have been the best musical direction, especially in a genre that's becoming over-saturated with icy, empty instrumentation. Now, granted, Dessa still does a phenomenal job selling those quieter, more melancholy emotions, but more subdued instrumentation without the same bombast can make a few slower-tempo tracks not stand out in the same way.

But then again, the instrumentation has never been the star on Dessa's albums, so let's talk about songwriting and theme. Dessa's always been a phenomenally smart songwriter with a gift for intricacy and variety in her metaphors and symbolism, but it seems like the slide towards R&B have somewhat simplified the lyrics in favour of more personal songwriting and more impassioned delivery. Now don't get me wrong, she's still leaps and bounds above most of her peers, but there are notably less songs that told the intricate stories Dessa used to create, and that was a bit disappointing. There are also certain metaphors that Dessa repeats from her previous albums (the kite makes a recurring appearance), but to her credit, she does add enough additional flavour to justify them.

That being said, the stories she does tell are heartbreaking and Dessa's powerful emotional range does a huge amount to sell them. The album's broad thematic arc discusses lost connections, from those triggered by drugs or depression in 'The Man I Knew' and 'Annabelle' (the latter having a really powerful impact on me), failed friendships and relationships in 'Dear Marie' and the excellent 'Call Off Your Ghost', or even how Dessa's refusal to compromise might have hurt her career in my favourite track of the album 'Fighting Fish'. What's impressive about this album is Dessa's refusal to not tell the whole story - songs like 'Dear Marie', 'The Lamb' and 'It's Only Me' don't exactly paint her in the best of lights, but the emotional complexity that she lends to the writing really makes the songs memorable. What's interesting about Parts of Speech is that it doesn't really lend itself to a coherent throughline - it's a series of vignettes and short stories, and while Dessa adds personal touches to some stories, others she leaves ambiguous. Both 'Annabelle' and 'I'm Going Down' seem to imply they're speaking from a different perspective through their pronoun usage (otherwise they wouldn't make a lot of sense because Dessa has confirmed she is straight), and while it could hurt the deeper personal connection that Dessa is trying to emphasize on the album, her delivery saves them. The short story element also manages to redeem the final track 'Sound The Bells', which draws an apocalyptic picture that might seem out of place but ultimately acts as a underlying message behind those lost connections - whether you want to rebuild them or leave them in the past, the time to do so is now

So in the end, I really did like Parts of Speech from Dessa, even though I don't think it's her best. I've got to be honest, I prefer Dessa as a rapper with rich stories to tell rather than as a R&B act, but it's revealing of her talent that she can effectively pull off both on this album. And while I do wish the instrumentation had a bit more flavour and bombast, I can't deny Dessa's quieter expressions of vulnerability are delivered with a lot of emotional poignancy and beauty. So with that, 8/10 and a solid recommendation. Check out Dessa, folks, and let's hope for more female rappers getting success in 2014.

1 comment:

  1. Chú rể Huỳnh Hiểu Preston và cô đâu Angela Linh . Hí hí.
    P/s: đám cưới lộng lẫy quá. Mong là cặp đôi Showbiz này hp dài lâu chứ đừng có vài năm sau lại chia tay nhớ. Huhu
    dịch vụ hoàn thuế tncn tndn gtgt
    dịch vụ giải thể doanh nghiệp
    dịch vụ kế toán thuế tại tp hcm
    Chủ nhật này mình đi mộc châu trong ngày. Ai đi rồi cho em xin ít kinh nghiệm về đường xá , điểm nào bắn tốc độ .