Dessa – A Badly Broken Code – 3.5/5
I remember when I was younger and Eminem first hit the hip-hop scene; an explosion of new fans to the genre mixed with the animosity that this puny little white boy was starting to muscle in on a predominantly black man's turf. I remember it rather fondly actually, for a short time the guy nodding his head to Maiden on his MP3 player was given a bit of respite as a new battle began. But now that the idea of a Caucasian hip-hop artist is no longer a novelty, and never one to shy away from new developments, when I stumbled on Dessa, a Caucasian female hip-hop artist (though I admit I use the term rather loosely) my interest couldn't help but be piqued. Is she to become the new Eminem? Will the novelty elevate her from the underground and re-invoke the reluctance of conservative hip-hop fans who still cling to the narrow-minded notions of what their beloved genre should be?
The more I explore the underground hip-hop scene (and I'll be the first to admit I still have a long way to go before I consider myself at all well versed in the genre), the more I equate it to the genre of metal I've grown up with. When a female enters the male dominated metal arena one of two situations tend to occur; we get them playing to their feminine strengths as a vocalist, making the music pander to it as well (the “Nightwish” syndrome), or they try their best to pretend to sound like a man (Angela Gossow for Arch Enemy anyone?). The situation here isn't all that different; there's the inherent worry that she's going to either fall to her femininity and produce an album without any inherent bite, or alternatively try to over compensate and sound like a butch guy without the vocal chords to back it up, but it doesn't take long before she puts both of these worries to rest. Her gender becomes a non-issue, never plagued by thoughts of what she ought to be but rather embracing who she is and coming up with a sound that is entirely her own in the process.
The only female member of hip-hop troupe “Doomtree,” the new line of Minnesotan rappers after Rhymesayers that have begun to make some waves in the underground circles, it seems quite pertinent to point out that she never began life in the hip-hop underground. In fact, her early life saw her earn a degree in philosophy before using her new found way with words to carve a career as a spoken word poet, all whilst co-founding an a capella group, and her past is never far from her music. The opening track makes that all too apparent; “Childrens Work” an ode to her younger brother and their difficult childhood. Often layering gently sung vocals over orchestral work, it often feels like there's more than a touch of ambient in the vein of 'Jonna Enckell' at play; a touch of 'Portishead' in the slower tracks with her R'n'B sensibilities and influences making themselves known throughout, and this unique detail in the backing rarely goes unappreciated.
But as everyone whose heard underground hip-hop knows, this is only part of the story, and the vocals and their delivery form a critical part of the music. The lyrics are often worth listening out for even if the backing obscures them all too much, being pushed up just a touch too high in the mix, with her literary background coming across in her poetic lines. Her sense of flow doesn't help, mesmerising you in an effigy of emotion to the point you forget to focus on the words being spoken, and when this is all mixed with her soft voice contrasting the harder edged rapped lines it feels like a new evolution for the genre. Her multiple influences will both be her saviour and the reason she will never become widely recognised. It'll allow her to stand out from the crowd on her own merits and simultaneously be disregarded due to her gender and unconventionality. This feels like hip-hop for those willing to expand their horizons, and whilst often inconsistent – particularly when she fails to integrate her rapped lines with sung passages and instead becomes all too reliant on one side – there are nuggets of gold here unlike anyone else I've heard of.
Highlights: Childrens Work, Mineshaft II, The Chaconne, Matches to Paper Dolls, Seamstress, Alibi