I am rooting so hard for women in hip-hop, it’s not even funny. So much mainstream hip-hop is male-dominated, macho asshole bullshit (50 Cent and Eminem come to mind) and I find myself longing for a female perspective delivered in awesome rhymes over seriously heavy beats. If you recommend a female hip-hop artist to me, I will check her out without reservation. Because I want them to succeed. Not just a little, either. I want a woman who performs hip-hop the way Suzan-Lori Parks writes plays, which is the way John Coltrane played the saxophone (seriously, her plays are – among other things – jazz. You can snap your fingers to that dialogue*). Is that a tall order? Sure. But life’s too short to accept mediocrity (which is why, incidentally, I don’t drink shitty beer. Life’s too fucking short. If you can’t afford the good stuff, don’t buy beer. And I don’t want to hear any wild accusations of elitism. Respect for craft is not elitism, it is the understanding of and appreciation for real art. Some people drink Budweiser and like Thomas Kinkade paintings. I drink Guinness and prefer the works of, say, James Ensor to the so-called Painter of Light, which is, I shit you not, really what Kinkade calls himself. The prick).
So where, in the broad spectrum of my extraordinarily high hopes, does A Badly Broken Code, the full-length debut by Dessa (born Margret Wander. She once dated fellow Doomtree artist and Linkin Park soundalike P.O.S. Okay, to be fair, he sounds a little smarter than Linkin Park, but the overall aesthetic strikes me the same way. Maybe punk and rap weren’t meant to go together, the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven” notwithstanding), land? She’s no Suzan-Lori Parks of hip-hop, but A Badly Broken Code is probably not best classified as a hip-hop album. Yes, Dessa raps on a lot of the tracks and graciously avoids some of the typical things that piss me off about hip-hop albums, namely skits and songs about what a badass MC she is (there is one song, “Crew,” which is about how awesome Doomtree is. I’m okay with that, because it’s showing respect for the people who allowed her to make and put out this record. In fact, more rappers should try showing gratitude instead of just bragging all the time. See Dessa’s fellow Minnesotan, Brother Ali, for other excellent examples of gratitude in hip-hop) but there’s some very captivating R&B-style singing on A Badly Broken Code (truly gorgeous harmonies adorn both “Poor Atlas” and “Into the Spin”) and some tracks possess a meter that shows Dessa’s spoken word roots pretty clearly. None of which is a bad thing, mind you, but it does muddy up the album’s clear distinction as a hip-hop record.
So let’s call it hip-hoppish and get down to whether or not A Badly Broken Code is a good album, whatever genre you or I or anyone cares to stamp on it. The answer is an overwhelming “mostly.” It’s not so bad that I can get away with saying, “More like a badly broken album!” and then guffawing myself into a coma. It’s not bad at all, really. Here’s the thing that seems to be troubling me about it and I just realized it this last time listening to it – I like all the bits where Dessa sings way better than the ones where she raps. Her lyrics are fine, her cadence and meter are usually okay, it’s just that part of me really likes the sound of her singing.
And it’s also that part of me wants the female equivalent of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and I haven’t heard that yet (if you have, tell me what it is and I will listen to it and then either belligerently argue with you or belligerently agree with you). Dessa is probably never going to make that album because her musical curiosity pulls her in too many directions at once to have that kind of focused outrage and those kind of pounding beats. A Badly Broken Code doesn’t grab my attention the way my favorite hip-hop albums do, but it is a lovely listen with really ornate instrumental arrangements and better takes on the old themes of love, fidelity, loss of innocence, and death than your favorite emo band is likely to offer in their entire career (although “Matches to Paper Dolls” is a little too trite for my taste. The simile feels forced to me). All expectations aside, Dessa is an intelligent, strong-voiced woman with a wide range of talent. Like all good artists, she fearlessly risks pretension and melodrama in the attempt to tell her stories her way. Though Dessa has been praised for her dense, verbose lyrics, I would suggest that she work on finding a way to be erudite in a little tighter meter – it helps things flow a little better and, if you’re handy with a thesaurus, you can still get across the same intelligent content while preserving a true hip-hop hook. But maybe hip-hop hooks are not what Dessa is interested in and I will not try to mold her into my hip-hop heroine if that’s not what she wants to be. In which case, ladies, the job is still open.
*Okay. I’ve noticed in the last week that my spell-check on Gmail and now here on WordPress doesn’t like the proper spellings of words like dialogue and catalogue. They seem to prefer the aesthetically awful “catalog” and “dialog” which were not in common usage earlier in my lifetime. I can’t help but feel like you have a “dialog” if you grew up in America and still can’t really read or write English. Like maybe you think professional wrestling is real and the Marmaduke movie is gonna be hilarious.