REVIEW: DESSA – A BADLY BROKEN CODE (2010)
My first exposure to Dessa just so happened to be on one of the False Hopes that the Minneapolis collective, Doomtree, has been churning out over the 2000s. She’s the countering anchor to heavy hitters, Sims, Mike Mictlan and P.O.S.. With A Badly Broken Code, the northern state riles those settling, productive music waters.
Professor and poet, Dessa Darling unleashed her long-awaited debut full length in January years after her EP (iTunes) hit Lyndale and Lake Streets. In the years leading up, you could not help but notice Dessa as she held her own in a burgeoning rap scene, topping others in rhymes (“No Homeowners”) and flat out singing ability (“If & When”). As with the those two off False Hopes 2007, A Badly Broken Code is similarly bound with “Children’s Work” bookended by “Into the Spin.” Immediately out the gate, “Poor Atlas” trips anyone believing this is just another rap effort with an a cappella sway, lulling and tugging like a siren’s song to your ship. Given Dessa’s discography-and whim, the ensuing path goes either bitterly biting or serenely mesmerizing. “Mineshaft II”‘s story of seeking forgiveness, depicts this rap/sing balancing she does so well. It’s not just the content (“And here you are, stick figure and busted grin still ignorant of all the trouble I’ma get us in.”), but the way her voice lives word-by-word in the delivery.
The sole mistake I made in the month prior to its release was attempting to adjust her recent “Scuffle” with what her debut full-length could portray. The aforementioned was a powerful, crushing track backed by P.O.S. that stole her mold, tore it apart and thrashed the remains. There’s a lack of that obsidian in A Badly Broken Code, yet no lack of symphonic beauty. “The Chaconne”, a rework of Paper Tiger’s “English”, coupled with “Matches to Paper Dolls” provides the year’s best-yet two-track album combination. The prior, a quiet lounge of strings, piano over Matthew Santos‘ supporting vocals hypnotizes. The latter, building upon that Paper Tiger mesmerizing foundation, gives way to the best beats on the album care of Big Jess.
However contrary to a Doomtree release, this is Dessa’s sole spotlight with no emcee collaborations. Nevertheless the follow-up to the clarinet cacophony “Momento Mori”, “Crew” addresses the Minneapolis collective. It’s the closest to a love song from Darling, laid over a slide guitar. “Maybe ain’t a lot, but it’s an honest wage. And what we’ve got is what we’ve made.” But hey, Doomtree’s draw comes from the emcees and producers growing practically indistinguishable. Paper Tiger, MK Larada, Lazerbeak and Cecil Otter all lend beats for that spotlight. MK Larada’s newfound liking for clarinets (see below) are refreshing as Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger give a veritable one-two with country-tinged “Dutch” and cymbals-horn blasts of “The Bullpen.”
“A Badly Broken Code gathers a compendium of notes and styles Dessa’s crafted and honed with the Minneapolis collective in the past years. The Twin Cities continue to play host to a vibrant, San Francisco-of-the-North creative force prying itself piece by piece into the national scene. With this album Dessa takes the helm, adding another constellation to navigate the music scene towards those 10,000 lakes.