REVIEW: DESSA – PARTS OF SPEECH (2013)
Dessa is consistent, but not. This Minneapolis MC, poet, frequent college speaker, “underrated writer, overrated rapper, undecided major” has been all over the place since 2005’s Falsehopes, including creating her own lipstick with The Elixery to support CARE.org (an organization that educates and supports women). Listeners stung at her feral bite on “Scuffle” from False Hopes 15alongside her fellow artists and lifemates in Doomtree. Soon thereafter, they were enchanted over “The Chaconne,” a song as soothingly beautiful as a lullaby reinforced by harmonies from Matthew Santos off of A Badly Broken Code. Then the MC dropped beats entirely, calling upon Sean McPherson and a band of musicians to revisit her catalogue over xylophone, emotionally charged string bass and live instrumentation-a rare example of an artist renewing themself through challenging established concepts of genre. Dessa is not consistent in all viewpoints of convention and tradition, in music genre. Yet in terms of themes, talent and vision, you would be challenged to find a more consistent artist today.
Castor, The Twin wasn’t exactly a new nor cover album per say, but is the integral stepping stone to understand this songwriter’s latest album, Parts of Speech. The opening notes of “The Man I Knew” clearly lead the statement that the Dessa we knew prior to 2011 is no longer. Castor left its mark as the bright punctuation of the piano offsets brushed snare and string bass not conventionally called in for with hip-hop. With “two cigarettes burning,” the songstress calms discographic discordant seas by reflecting on thematic thunderstorms of love and relationships. “But you’re so far gone, up where the air gets thin…” and “I don’t think he can hear me now, so dizzy with the altitude” lyrically and audibly showcase Dessa’s authorial voice, paralleling her soaring paced singing before urgently plunging into an anxious guitar pulse behind “who am I to tell you to come down.” Only hints of the pre-2011 rapper emerge, closer towards the end, before Paper Tiger‘s comforting production, a more steampunk “The Bully Plank,” draws the loyal listeners back into A Badly Broken Code Dessa. Think a multilayer singer synopsis from Jessy Greene’s violin into subterranean Tiger beats 3/4s of the way in.
Lazerbeak-produced “Skeleton Key” was cited as her mission statement this time around. Self-confident, capable and resilient, the song seems to personify her life and career moving forward in spite of road blocks or detours. “Everyone’s got someplace they want to be let in” being the message of encouragement to a universal public. Meanwhile “I’m Going Down” proves that stores may not have the easiest of times categorizing her music. Maybe it’s the solitary Dustin Kiel guitar, or the isolated roughness that indicates it’s far from urban or hip-hop placeholders. Or, that this is a Bruce Springsteen cover, and quite a good one at that.
The leading single “Warsaw” throws the album into a tizzy as “Scuffle” did years back. The unrelenting rapid delivery shocks the most passive of listeners into attention, serving as that solid jarring grip to Parts of Speech that Castor, The Twin could have used more of had that particular album not had been such a fundamental shift in her art to begin with. One more boundingly blunt song would have balanced the album against this heavyweight. While “Fighting Fish” may, at first glance, seem to sound like a rehash, listen closer and be patient for this subtle uptempo gem.
Parts of Speech sheds the past, giving the most coherent record of Dessa’s forward-looking artistic vision. If switching to a live band on Castor, The Twin and adopting that in the production may have been perceived as a temporary experiment by some (akin to Slug & Ant on When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold), this new chapter removes all doubts. “Annabelle” and “It’s Only Me” affirm the monumental stylistic shift, yet the lack of fellow Doomtree MCs featured on the disc is the most subtle shock. Yet other singers do chime in on closer, “Sound the Bells.” A chorus including Aby Wolf, Rebecca Arons, Gabriel Douglas of The 4onthefloor and Ben Burwell of Taj Rajcreates Dessa at the most lush, orchestral and beautiful we have yet heard. A befitting and promising end to the latest chapter in this musical maestra’s evolving collection of work.