Tagged: Psalm One

Ladies, make some noise

Last night, I got my nose out of the book I was reading (Ien Ang’s Desperately Seeking the Audience, for curious parties) and went out to shake a tail feather. The Majestic, a local venue in Madison, hosted a hip hop-themed 80s vs. 90s dance party.

 

Grammy winners Salt 'N' Pepa

 

Obviously, I don’t need to defend the merits of hip hop’s golden era. OutKast’s ATLiens, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas’ Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Very Necessary, Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, MC Lyte’s Lyte as a Rock, and The Fugees’ The Score all belong in the history books as much as they do in my car. Since this music scored my adolescence and many bedroom dance parties, I was happy to raise a glass and toast myself on the floor.

As this was the music of my youth, it was also the music of my feminist awakening. While I recognize that many female MCs don’t associate with the term “feminism,” their commanding presence and demand for self-respect and sexual autonomy was hugely influential on how I came to understand the world and my place in it as a teenage girl and later as an adult woman. Later I’d acquire a copy of Tricia Rose’s definitive Black Noise, a tremendously influential piece of hip hop scholarship that I believe has only been surpassed by her more recent effort, The Hip Hop Wars

Lest we encase this era of mainstream hip hop in amber, there are a number of contemporary female MCs whose careers and artistic contributions warrant attention, including Psalm One, Dessa, Las Krudas, Nicki Minaj, Invincible, Miz Korona, MicahTron, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Lady Sovereign, JNaturaL, Rita J, and Jean Grae, among so many others. Let’s also not forget the veteran female artists who rose to prominence during this point in popular musical history and are still in the game. Missy forever.

Last night, the deejay represented Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, Lauryn Hill in Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” along with Janet Jackson, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, and (after I checked in with one of the deejays) TLC. But c’mon–this was a monumental time for women in hip hop, as well as female R&B groups who were influenced by hip hop and hip hop culture. A handful of songs hardly suffice when you could devote an entire night to women’s contributions to hip hop during this period.

To be fair, I didn’t hear Positive K’s “I Got a Man,” Bone Thugs’ “First of the Month,” or the Bad Boy remix of Craig Mac’s “Flava in Your Ear” either. But as fine a time as I had last night, there were a number of voices I’d like to have heard from folks like Amil, Erykah Badu, Eve, Lil Kim, Rah Digga, Foxy Brown, maybe even dig deep into the crates for some Sparky D. Some of them may have gotten their due after I left. But all of them necessitate future dance parties. Maybe some clips can help get one started. Feel free to make requests.

Wherein I begrudge giving album of the year to the white dude with the sequencer, the white lady with the harp, or the black woman who may be Prince’s rightful successor

Janelle Monáe did a lot to define 2010's year in music; image courtesy of newblackman.blogspot.com

Jennifer Kelly is my favorite writer at Dusted, my go-to music e-zine. Recently she conceded that this year in music had a lot of contenders, but no clear leader of the pack. She then went on to list ten albums she really liked regardless of music critics’ echo chamber. It’s a good list, and I recommend you check it out. I also think you should give some time to Wetdog, a British punk band I learned about from her list.

In many ways, 2010 was an embarrassment of riches. So many big-name artists released career-peak records and lots of up-and-comers made me excited to listen to music each week (day? half-day? quarter-day? how rapid is the cycle now?). On paper, it’s a banner year. Yet I can’t pick one album that defines it. But that’s probably a good thing.

If I were to draft a list, three albums would place at #2. Critical darling Janelle Monáe comes the closest to topping my list. She defied commercial expectations with a pop album called The ArchAndroid about a futuristic metropolis that fused Prince with Octavia Butler. Joanna Newsom channeled Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan to create the dusky reveries on the enveloping Have One on Me. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy lifted synths straight out of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and the Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” while borrowing from Berlin-era Bowie for This Is Happening, which was book-ended by two of the man’s best songs.

Joanna Newsom on David Letterman; image courtesy of stereogum.com

The last two artists also managed to follow up and improve upon the albums that made them big tent attractions. Like most great pop music, they transcend their influences and ambitions. Yet each album is weighed down by at least one song. I always skip Happening‘s “You Wanted A Hit?,” which is too long and repetitive, even if it is aware of these things. I won’t fault Monáe and Newsom’s scope, but pruning a few tracks off for an EP or as b-sides might have been helpful. I think “Say You’ll Go” and “Kingfisher” don’t have the impact they could have elsewhere. If Newsom were referencing PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, “Kingfisher” would be her “Horses in My Dreams,” but it’s buried here.

BTW, no one’s jostling for #3. It’s Flying Lotus’ elegantly trippy Cosmagramma all the way.

As with every year, there are albums that are overrated and underpraised. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfect #11. It’s got fascinating angst and pathos that recalls another celebrity guilt rock record, Nirvana’s In Utero while squarely situating it as a black man’s experiences with fame. West’s bionic, prog-inflected production is the most potent it’s ever been. “All of the Lights” and “Monster” are among the year’s best songs, though credit goes solely to Nicki Minaj for the latter. But Jesus am I tired of reading ovations that cite the rapper’s Twitter feed. Yes, it provides insights into his process. And yes, it is noteworthy how West made so many tracks available to fans before the album was released (and maybe I’d bump it to #10 if “Chain Heavy” made the final cut). But it’s hardly album of the year or even a career best (in my opinion, he still hasn’t improved upon Late Registration).

Conversely, Spoon’s Transference is an ideal #9. People seem to hold one of America’s best rock bands in lower esteem this year for making an incomplete-sounding album. To my ears, this is an ingenious thing for a band so preoccupied with space and compositional austerity to do with a break-up record. I keep returning to tracks like “Is Love Forever” and “Nobody Gets Me,” yearning for a resolution I know I won’t find. I’d also mention that Marnie Stern‘s latest record (which would probably round out the top five) and Dessa‘s A Badly Broken Code (a peerless #4) were slept on. If they didn’t place higher, it’s only because they didn’t feel the need to announce their greatness and came on as slow burners. The same could be said of Seefeel‘s earthy dub on Faults (possibly #7) and Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had an incredibly prolific year that peaked with Kings Ballad (between #8-10). Psalm One’s Woman @ Work series on Bandcamp has me anticipating her next album. Oh, and since this was a year largely defined by albums about break-ups and shaky make-ups, Erykah Badu’s Second World War (#8) needs your attention.

There’s also lots of new stuff I liked this year that I hope ages with me. I’ve made peace with my misgivings about the limited shelf life of Sleigh Bells’ bubblegum through blown speakers, in part because Treats (#12-15 with some staying power) sounds amazing in the car, which is where all great pop records become immortal in the states. I’d like Best Coast more if leader Bethany Cosentino just went ahead and wrote a concept album about the munchies or her cat instead of devoting so many songs to boys. Sufjan Stevens’ indulgence bored me silly, as did Surfer Blood’s inability to rise past their influences and sound like themselves. Big Boi and Bun B’s ambitious releases deserve their accolades, but they should excite me more than they do. I have yet to fall in love with Robyn the way everyone else has, but Rihanna continues to be my girl.

I’m really into the new Anika record, which is tailor-made for insomniacs. However, I’m certain that a woman with a Teutonic monotone snarling her way through catatonia as producer Geoff Barrow quotes post-punk’s buzzsaw guitar noise holds limited appeal. I always welcome a new Gorillaz album, and Plastic Beach certainly delivered. Among others, I liked new efforts from Baths, El Guincho, Noveller, M.I.A., Grass Widow, Sharon Van Etten, Soft Healer, Beach House, Mountain Man, The Black Keys, Cee-Lo Green, Tobacco, Sky Larkin, Tame Impala, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Nite Jewel, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Warpaint, Antony and the Johnsons, The Budos Band, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, even if the last two artists essentially release the same great album each time out. And even though I get a free cocktail if Merge wins the Album of the Year Grammy, Matador had a good year for me with Glasser, Esben and the Witch, and Perfume Genius, whose harrowing confessionals will hopefully find a larger audience (Sufjan fans, listen up).

(Note: don’t get me started on the Arcade Fire. I’m going to be mean and unfair, as I’ve been since I gave up on liking Funeral. Suffice it to say, I’m not fond of them and think I can tell you more about living in a Houston suburb than they can. But it won’t be a productive conversation because I’ll tear up my throat launching cheap shots about dressing for the Dust Bowl and wearing denim jackets to prove that you’re one with the working man. It’s not helpful, so I’ll be kind and say they’re fine at what they do but I want no part of it.)

Part of why I can’t settle on a #1 is because I don’t think it matters. I don’t think I need an album to define the year for me. It’s always seemed that selecting one was a fool’s errand. Steve Albini may very well be an insufferable jerk, but he’s absolutely right when he said “Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.” Last year, I chose Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. While it helped situate my feelings for the year, it can’t hold a candle to her modern classic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But now I’m not even sure what the point is. This exercise doesn’t take into account all of the older music I finally prioritized this year. For me, 2010 is just as much defined by digging through Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses records (4AD had a good year in all kinds of ways), as well as getting excited about Mary Timony, Jenny Toomey, and Carla Bozulich.

Carla Bozulich and I will be spending some quality time together next year; image courtesy of wfmu.org

Furthermore, I’ve sometimes lost sight of why I write in this medium. Apart from being vulnerable to having my content scraped by sketchy sites and feeling like I should be doing something more politically important with my time, it can be a challenge to keep the routine of blogging from dulling the impact of your work. This may have more to do with a need to explore scarier forms of writing, like the kind that requires the involvement of a guitar or a storyboard. As a departure, I started a film blog series for Bitch last month. It’s been the right kind of challenging, though I’m not always certain I’m effectively communicating what I hope to accomplish. Music allows for abstraction where films require exposition, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m writing several variations on “I walked to the chair and sat down.” But I’m learning and it’s been a lot of fun.

I’ve also been fortunate this year to contribute content for Bitch, Tom Tom Magazine, Elevate Difference, I Fry Mine in Butter, and Scratched Vinyl, for which I’m grateful and hope I’ve done a service to those publications. In addition to music critics I love like Laina Dawes, Maura Johnston, and Audra Schroeder, I’m excited and challenged by writing from Amy Andronicus, Always More to Hear, Soul Ponies, Jenny Woolworth, Sadie Magazine, Women in Electronic Music, This Recording, and regularly follow podcasts like Cease to Exist and Off Chances.

I don’t mean to be self-effacing toward my efforts, as I’m proud of them. It’s been a good year and it’s healthy to be critical when you’re taking stock. Perhaps I’m responding to a lack of stability. This was a year of change. Some changes were seismic, like when several friends had babies. Others were gradual, like my partner launching a successful music e-zine and me delving into the world of freelance writing in earnest while taking a deep breath and learning to play the guitar. While some friends returned to Austin, others moved away this year and more are soon to follow in 2011. There’s even an infinitesimal chance I’ll be in that number, but the likelihood of uprooting and leaving the food carts and backyard parties of my adopted home is so small and too profound to consider, so I push it away.

But as I’ve thought on these feelings during the year, the lyrics from LCD Soundsystem’s “Home” resonate. Though detractors may note Murphy’s manipulating my generation with lines like “love and rock are fickle things” and “you’re afraid of what you need . . . if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about,” I’ve taken comfort in crooning them in my car. That’s the best of what pop music can accomplish–taking abstractions and making them applicable to life’s mundane realities, at times clarifying their importance. In whatever medium, I can’t wait for another year of writing about it.

James Murphy, you and I had another good year; image courtesy of nymag.com

Check out my review of Psalm One’s Woman @ Work, Volumes 2 and 3

Woman @ Work Volume 2 (self-released, 2010); image courtesy of psalmone.bandcamp.com

Woman @ Work, Volume 3 (self-released; 2010); image courtesy of psalmone.bandcamp.com

Check in with Scratched Vinyl for my thoughts on Psalm One’s second and third installments of the Woman @ Work series.

Quick write-up of My Mic Sounds Nice

My Mic Sounds Nice logo; image courtesy of soulculture.co.uk

On Monday, BET premiered My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth about Women in Hip-hop, which was posted in full on Miss Info’s Web site. Unfortunately, the first two segments have since been taken down, but you can see clips on the BET Web site.

In truth, I’m waiting for Rachel Raimist to drop some science on it for The Crunk Feminist Collective next Monday, as she promised on Kristen at Dear Black Woman‘s Facebook page. I’m pretty sure the director of the fantastic Nobody Knows My Name, the forebear of BET’s inquiry on gender and hip hop, has some exquisite criticism plotted out. I’ll read, re-tweet, and provide a link in this entry when the blog post goes live.

Also, if you aren’t following The Crunk Feminist Collective, consider this your call to action. rboylorn’s piece this week about black women and depression was one of the best things I read in recent memory.

But I did see My Mic Sounds Nice and, as a feminist hip hop fan who is also a big fan of Nirit Peled’s Say My Name, feel I should use this space to comment and start a dialogue about it. Overall, I liked it.

1. I’m happy BET felt the need to address this subject matter at all. As far as I know, this was the first documentary made for the network and, not unlike Mad Men‘s Birth of the Independent Woman documentary included in the DVD set for season two, the network’s larger programming context was incorporated into the documentary’s narrative. They could’ve done this quite a bit more — say, launch into a discussion of BET: Uncut — but I’m happy a discussion’s starting.
2. Ava DuVernay directed My Mic Sounds Nice. If that name is familiar, you might have seen her documentary This Is the Life: How the West Was One, which I recommended in a previous post.
3. There’s a good mix of mainstream and independent female MCs. I like seeing Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Lil Mama, and Jean Grae share screen time.
4. In general, the documentary is a good primer for the development of women in hip hop. And early in the documentary, there’s lots of great context for nascent female involvement through battle rapping and emphasis placed on now-obscured female acts like the Sequence.
5. The overall approach to talking about women in hip hop is refreshingly discursive. DuVernay frames each voice and opinion as distinct and weaves differing or contradictory viewpoints from each subject. For example, it puts Yo-Yo’s intimations that she felt pressure to project a hyper-sexual image in the wake of Foxy Brown and Lil Kim’s mainstream success in the mid-90s in sharp relief to Trina and Nicki Minaj’s lucrative construction of their personae.

There are some things I felt a little strange about, though. These issues don’t speak to the documentary, but rather internal struggles from within a music industry conditioned toward conventional business practices, which hinge on patriarchal thinking.
1. Many mainstream artists — particularly EVE, who came up through the Ruff Ryders crew — have no problem with male mentorship and don’t feel any need to challenge or question it. Conversely, some male recording execs frame certain female MCs’ success as inherently positive, regardless of their views on gender and sexuality.
2. Likewise, there’s some strange pathology around mainstream female rappers being more of a financial drain on the music industry because of conventional beauty ideals. I don’t want to pathologize women of color any further by making essentializing claims about the upkeep of black hair and will instead refer you to Dear Black Woman’s rules. However, I find Missy Elliott, EVE, and Trina’s unchallenged claims that female hip hop artists have to be glamorous and therefore financially burdensome against the idea that male MCs just have to throw on jeans and a t-shirt in need of greater complication. How might fashion-forward MCs like André 3000 and Kanye West challenge this? And why do female MCs have to be conventionally attractive in order to be successful? While the latter is a rhetorical question, I’ll continue to keep asking it.
3. I love Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott. Also, I know how Hill’s absence from the music industry speaks to a profound loss within the genre, but I would’ve liked a) less time devoted exclusively to them, b) more conflicting opinions about them beyond universal praise, and c) a larger context of what other female rappers were doing — particularly in the underground — during their commercial reign.
4. A key idea that is both perpetuated and challenged is that female MCs don’t sell. I would have appreciated more nuance about the state of the music industry in general. Hip hop’s boom crested into pop music’s record-breaking commercial success in the late-90s. However, the 2000s have largely been defined by the ubiquity of digital music culture and a bankrupt music industry. Surely this speaks more to low sales than the cost of hiring and maintaining a glam squad for a female MC.

Best of all, though, the documentary ends with a look toward the future. The interview subjects plug female MCs they think will continue the legacy. Refreshingly, and with not a little business savvy, much consideration is given to underground artists. Jean Grae name-checks Iris and Psalm One. Fembassy editor-in-chief Glennisha Morgan recommends Invincible. A genre with all of them working in continuum with Nicki Minaj is one I’ll continue to follow.

SXSW Day 4 and 5 recap

More like SXSWTFit’s cold! Remember how I mentioned earlier that you should opt for comfort over fashion during the festival? I really ate my words on Saturday. It was in the 40s and windy, but I thought I could brave the weather wearing a peasant skirt I converted into a sundress paired with a cardigan, pleather jacket, and tights. I was very wrong.

Wye Oak – My partner and I checked out their show at the Galaxy Room’s outside stage. This is the third time I’ve seen the Baltimore-based duo and they get better and louder and more sonically interesting each time I see them.

After that, we grabbed spicy lamb kebabs at Kebabalicious, which made the wait to get into the Mohawk more tolerable. When we got in, some power pop group was wrapping up their set outside.

Dum Dum Girls – They played inside and were fine. Much in the vein of Vivian Girls.

Demolished Thoughts – This is a supergroup with Thurston Moore and J. Mascis (Andrew WK was billed, but absent). Awww, dad’s got a punk band. Because he is in Sonic Youth and his band mate led Dinosaur Jr., he gets to play outside at the Mohawk. He sings songs about adolescent disaffection that he scrawled in a notebook, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Kim is bemused. Coco is embarrassed.

Rye Rye – She takes it back to block parties and Roxanne Shanté 45s. And I was a mere few feet away from Ms. Ryeisha Berrain, who was flanked by two male back-up dancers who sported leather jackets and tank tops that said “Rye.” It’s always nice to see cocky, bubbly girls having fun and I’ve been having fun with her since my neighbor Rosa-María brought “Shake It to the Ground” into my life.

Broken Bells – Obviously the Danger Mouse/James Mercer collaboration drew a lot of attention. They played several shows to maximum capacity crowds. And good for them. But it’s only okay to me — give me Brian Burton’s collaborations with Cee-Lo Green and Damon Albarn over pleasant 60s power pop that basically sounds exactly like The Shins (and a little like The Dandy Warhols) any day.

After that, I kind of hit a wall because I was cold and therefore cranky. Kinda paid attention to Real Estate’s set inside.

The Black Keys – They got a late start and it was effin’ cold outside but still well worth it. I’ve never seen the Akron duo and they were killer.

From there I had to change clothes. On the way downtown, we ran into our friend Jessalyn, who was feeling the chill too. When Canadians think it’s cold, I feel quite validated. We headed back over to Frank where we saw Hector, a fellow KVRX alum, and those nice folks we met from KALX yesterday. Glad they got to find out the magic that is Austin’s artisan sausage haven. We also saw Irene from The Real World: Seattle, who I think walked past me right as I was explaining her “celebrity” to my partner. A similar incident happened with Emily Mortimer in New Orleans last spring. Both ladies gave me a bit of a stink eye.

YellowFever – Back at the Mohawk. I’ve actually never seen this Austin duo before, but have liked them for quite a while. Lovely sound, warmed my bones a bit.

Total Abuse – Noise band that played over at Barbarella. Something tells me they’ve listened to The Jesus Lizard. Especially the lead singer, who was working quite a crazy eye.

Kings Go Forth – Back at Galaxy. Ten-piece Midwestern funk ensemble who have clearly spent time listening to Curtis Mayfield and Earth Wind and Fire. Pretty fun, though looser than, say, Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. Also, I wonder how they will be marketed. Because I saw lots of cool kids at the show, but the band is itself pretty uncool. You know, they’re mainly paunchy older dudes in tunics. I don’t have a problem with it — as a matter of fact, it’s kind of nice that some older musicians are getting attention from younger people. I’m just curious as to how their image will be spun. That said, there were a lot of older people there too. If ever there was a band I saw that I could recommend to just about anyone, this’d be the group.

Oooh, and speaking of older people, this one grandpa in a sport coat and cap got me real mad! As I noticed with several acts at SXSW, Kings Go Forth played their best-known hit, “One Day,” at the end of their set so as to avoid a mass exodus of dabblers. When the band said they had one last song, Pappy rushed the stage and yelled “ONE DAY!” which of course they played. But this jackass started gyrating and trying to get people to dance with him like he didn’t just order the band to play a song. Ugh. They aren’t your monkeys, old man.

Tried to see Best Coast back at Barbarella, but had a feeling we should return to Mohawk in anticipation of a big turnout for Death at 1 a.m. Sure enough, the venue was at capacity . . . for Surfer Blood. Ya’ll, I know they’re a big buzz band and I was pleasantly surprised that anyone could form a band in West Palm Beach, but I was unimpressed. One minute they sounded like The Smiths, then the The Shins, and their hit sounds like The Offspring covering Big Country. Ho hum. Lots of people came only for their set, including MTV VJ/walking exoskeleton John Norris.

Once Surfer Blood wrapped up, we got in to see Dâm-Funk, which was totally worth it. His voice was great, the band was tight and, as the kid next to me texted to a friend, “the mother fucker had a keytar.” I’m sure a lot of folks got pregnant after his set.

And then . . .

Death – I was stoked that they played Fun Fun Fun Fest, and I’m still excited. These guys were making this music in Detroit in the mid-70s before punk officially happened and long before it merged with funk. And they’re still killing it and keeping it positive and politically conscious at the same time. Just sayin’.

On Sunday, we met up with our friends Karin and Jacob to see Jacob’s friends’ band RICE at Beerland for Panache‘s post-SXSW showcase. Good screamy fun from the West Coast by way of the East Coast. We also saw Screens, who I liked a lot. Then we ended the night at Emo’s to see the way ruling Paradise Titty play another rousing show.

Unfortunately, there were plenty of shows I missed. However, I’m excited that I saw so many female artists and yet missed these acts: YACHT, The Coathangers, Grass Widow, Talk Normal, The xx, Psalm One, and Invincible. And while I wish that damn highway didn’t divide the town, I think I got to see a lot of great shows. Please feel free to share your thoughts on SXSW 2k10 and we’ll do it again next spring.

Opening Acts: Dessa opens for P.O.S.

Dessa in concert; image courtesy of last.fm

I had the pleasure of catching Dessa‘s set last Friday at Red 7. She went on second, after Astronautalis and before headliner and fellow Doomtree rapper P.O.S. Now P.O.S.’s set was electric, crackling with verve, wit, and high energy. If you haven’t listened to P.O.S.’s Never Better, it was one of the strongest releases of last year.

However, Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code is a strong contender for my album of the year, bringing continued attention to the Minneapolis-based hip hop collective and troubling the acclaim bestowed upon Spoon’s Transference and Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me. If you haven’t listened to Dessa’s first full-length, get on that. Make sure you’re sitting down when you hear it, lest her flow fly at such a clip with such a force as to knock you over. The woman born Margret Wander has a way with words.

Women in American hip hop have always been an anomaly. Unfortunately, this is just as true for independent artists as those working in the mainstream. Some of these women have yet to cut an album despite doing incredible work on other (male) MCs’ albums, though I patiently await albums from Lionesque and Joyo Velarde. That said, those who are currently working underground are amongst my favorites: Jean Grae, Psalm One, Invincible, and Dessa. I like Kid Sister fine, but I want these women to run the game.

In many ways, Dessa reminds me of Grae. Both share an assured flow, pointed elocution, a deliberately casual look, and a hard-luck attitude toward love. But Dessa also brings a jazzy alto to her work, along with a poet’s ear for meter. This is much to her background as a spoken word artist, a term with a lot of cultural baggage. It’s hard for me to hear the words “spoken word artist” and not recall two characters from Medea’s Family Reunion improvising a mixed-media piece on a date or the hacky sack scene in She’s All That. Others have lampooned spoken word and its practitioners’ tendency toward self-important hackery, like Zadie Smith did in On Beauty or Dave Chappelle did in a rejected sketch for Chappelle’s Show that combined Def Comedy Jam with Def Poetry Jam.

But Dessa, much like Sarah Jones, The Last Poets, and Gil Scott-Heron before her, pulls off spoken word by incorporating it into her sound, thus expanding its aural possibilities. Dessa trades in words, which are conceptualized by some to be masculine and in contrast to a sung melody’s feminized, abject emotionality. But the way in which those words are delivered — whether as a rap, a vocal line, a verse, or some combination of all three — allow her to manipulate time signatures and rhyme schemes, giving her greater freedom to explore sound and verse. That her songs are often wry, smart, candid inner monologues about family, childhood, addiction, and relationships make me even happier that I’m hearing a female voice articulate them. Even when she threads cover songs into her own material, as she did with Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (or perhaps Jeff Buckley covering John Cale covering Leonard Cohen), I need only hear the voice and see it coming out of the performer on stage to know where it’s really coming from.

As perhaps evidenced by the clip above, witnessing her performing this sort of word jazz live was really something to behold. Her set-up was spare — simply her microphone and deejay Plain Ole Bill‘s turntables. And yet, the minimalism showcased the immensity of her talent. She was also really funny and open on stage, which helps orient where those songs come from and only adds to her magnetic presence. I especially appreciated her recounting a story about being in the lady’s room at the gig and the lights turning off. She took pride in the other occupants checking in on each other instead of running for the exit. She has a lot of faith in women and girls’ capacity for survival should the apocalypse come. I have a lot of faith in her potential as an artist. Dessa’s mic sounds nice.