You might get the idea, given how many times per week I make a reference to 1) The Clash and/or London Calling, 2) The Hold Steady and 3) Tom Waits, that I don’t much care for pop music. Few things could be further from the truth (some things are definitely further from the truth, like believing that the planet is younger than some civilizations). I’m actually a big fan of pop music, but I apply to it the same high standards I have for all other music (this is why I write hip-hop reviews for Atmosphere and not Eminem.). Obviously, I love The Beatles and I’ll even argue for the timeless pop goodness of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. But, like R&B, pop music has largely taken a giant fucking nosedive in the last twenty years or so, such that some our best artists in the pop style (namely The New Pornographers and Fountains of Wayne) are comparitively unknown (“Stacy’s Mom” notwithstanding, Fountains of Wayne is a completely awesome and clever band.).
So this is the climate in which I found Santogold, better known as Santi White to her friends (not least of whom is M.I.A., to whom Santi will no doubt garner comparisons). Well, in the interest of full disclosure, my friend Zac pointed me to “L.E.S. Artistes” and I was hooked. And rightfully so.
Santi White has written songs for Ashlee Simpson. White’s eponymous debut as Santogold is proof that she’s keeping her best stuff for herself. Santogold is a genre-hopping pop masterpiece full of funk, hip-hop, and even a little punk swagger. It’s the kind of album that people will either love or hate; Santogold is very good at being provocatively obnoxious, a trait she shares with M.I.A.
So yeah, there’s the big, funky beats and the woman using her voice in fun and interesting ways on Santogold, but let’s put the M.I.A. comparisons to bed. Santogold is much more of a straightforward pop album than M.I.A. is capable of making. “Lights Out” is the proof in the pudding – it’s a pure pop-rock tune, the musical equivalent of a Pixie Stick, injecting sugar straight into your brain.
Santi White’s musical awareness and versatility are on display from the beginning of “L.E.S. Artistes” (that’s “Lower East Side” Artistes, a jab at NYC posers, of which, apparently, there are many) straight through the final remix of “You’ll Find A Way” (which is actually completely unnecessary). “L.E.S. Artistes” starts with a steady pop beat before White comes in singing a little bit like Cindy Lauper before diving into the catchy-as-fuck chorus, “I can say I hope/ it will be worth what I give up.” White’s voice is abrasive at times and seductive at others – a true instrument that she uses tremendously throughout the album.
“You’ll Find A Way,” follows the opener and is a rock song with reggae-tinged guitar on the verses and an awesomely overdriven bassline. As I listen to it again, I can still hear some Lauperisms in the chorus (“Don’t lean too far/ you will fall over”), but the whole thing is just so… damn… catchy. You know, like good pop should be.
The biggest treat on Santogold is really that there’s something for everyone. There’s an underlying hip-hop vibe to a lot of the songs (the beats are bass-driven and heavy as hell) and White blends various styles over that foundation, synthesizing styles with a seamlessness I haven’t seen since The Clash (not just shilling here – listen to London Calling and Combat Rock and tell me how many genres you hear in there). In particular, White seems to have a better sense of when to nod to her favorite reggae sounds (on “Shove It,” for instance) and when to just let a pop song be a pop song (as on “Lights Out”). The only genre I don’t hear on this album is country, which is admittedly hard to blend with many styles outside of rock (blend country with pop and you get Faith Hill, which is bad. Blend country with hip-hop and you get Big & Rich, which is offensively terrrible. Blend country with rock and you get The Band, Uncle Tupelo, and early My Morning Jacket. Perfect!).
To the astute listener, songs like “Say Aha,” and “L.E.S. Artistes” might call to mind the tragically under-rated Res (pronounced “Reese”), whose 2001 album How I Do would’ve been a blueprint for sounds like Santogold’s if the world hadn’t been too stupid to notice that album. Seriously, How I Do was the only R&B album of the early 21st century. Sorry, you can keep your Alicia Keys and whoever else is dabbling in R&B these days. I’ll take Res and Sharon Jones. If you’re reading this, Res, please make more music now. Please?
Anyway, back to the album at hand – Santogold is a great record for music nerds who can spot the style and the reference, but it’s also not as elitist as that sounds. If you put this album on at a party, you’ll get a whole lot of, “Hey, that’s really fresh. What is that?” Or you’ll get a lot of “Is this the new M.I.A.?” You can throw those people out.