Where to begin, with an album that’s such a multi-layered, sonically ambitious, lyrically dense and deep affair? That is, mind-bogglingly, a debut? From an artist that 3 months ago, I’d never even heard of ?(more fool me) How did we get here with May’s album of the month, and This Is Not Happening’s 11th episode? Ten days ago, it wasn’t even my month to pick.
I was down for June, but @davidhallison‘s love for St Vincent meant we switched it up – as we have before – and instead of a month to choose an album I had a week, at a stretch. This is enough to induce seven days of anxiety, let alone having stung myself with Yves Tumor in Episode 3: an album that the critics loved, that I picked out of a big big hat, wanting to wilfully choose something I wouldn’t usually go for. In the end, I just didn’t love it, even though there were some uncut gems on there. So I sifted through over a hundred new albums released since January, trying to find something that stood out to me. I struggled, not wanting to simply pick something random. I even entertained a classic album, deciding that really, if I couldn’t find new music, perhaps I should have a word with myself.
Something made me go back to Smiling With No Teeth, the debut from Ghanaian/Australian artist Genesis Owusu. It turns out I’d read an article on him back in March and that must’ve been a subconscious call-back. How could you not remember – even in the recesses of your mind – someone who proclaims ‘I’m Prince, if he were a rapper in 2020s Australia‘? I can’t have been totally convinced. Perhaps it was my mind telling me that ‘I don’t ‘do hip-hop’. Of course, once I listened to the album, it was clearly not a hip hop album. In fact it is the first album in a long time I’ve really found impossible to pigeonhole, even a dozen listens in. Fifteen tracks, almost an hour (Joey would have to do another lap of his ‘album walk’) and my first impression? I was baffled, a bit overwhelmed. But, most importantly, I also wanted to come back.
And that’s the happenstance way I’ve come to gradually live with this astonishing album. One that opens with the electro ripple of On The Move, hitting you with an Afrika Bambaataa-shaped sledgehammer. Even from the first few listens, what started as bewildering collection of musically inventive, but attention-grabbing tracks, something gets you. It has that undefinable ability that good albums do: to start taking shape and working its way into your subconscious right from the start. Then you hit The Other Black Dog, with its relentless, cycling energy and edge, ‘a tale of black dogs with golden leashes‘ and you start to get an inkling of a theme as you’re still trying to wrap your head around it as a whole. ‘Oh, depression’, you think, like Arlo. But what you’ll slowly realise is that it’s much more complex than that. Because the ‘Black Dog’ isn’t just depression, on an album that touches on some heavy themes: it’s a reclaiming of a racist term often used as a racial slur against Kofi Owusu-Ansah throughout his life. Its double meaning gives it extra resonance once you grasp that. You can read many things about the artist and his music, (and you should, because he is a person who is magnetic when he talks about his craft) but I always want a few tilts at the album before I started gaining context, to simply take in the music, without prejudgement.
Because, before you start to get to exist with the lyrics, the music leaves quite the early impression. It’s hard to see a genre that’s not covered: the aforementioned electro and pulsing beats, then Centrefold’s silky r’n’b that nods at everything from Frank Ocean to The Internet via Outkast, paired with Waitin’ On Ya, with its vocoded, 90s-esque stylings that felt the strongest connection to Super Rich Kids, and I Don’t Need You’s scuzzy guitar-vocal interplay that feels every inch a modern pop record. Drown, which is as if lifted from an 80s teen classic soundtrack, its rasping guitars and pulsing synth bass notes, lifted by guitarists Kirin J Callinan’s vocals. By the end of ‘side one’ (because it really does feels like a ‘proper’ album in that respect’, I felt like I’d gone on a car chase through the last 40 years of my musical existence. There was a lot to unpack. And yet, as you feel you have a handle on the most modern of ‘urban pop’ (is that even a thing?) albums, it takes a darker turn.
The ‘side two’ of Smiling With No Teeth, even without the lyrical connections, turns south. Gold Chains‘ echoes vintage N.E.R.D. but drips with metaphor ‘When it looks so gold, but it feels so cold inside these chains‘, subverting the macho hip-hop culture and appearance with a frail soul. The album’s title track swaggers along a pared-back Rhodes and harmonies, all Frank Ocean again, but with a bleakness attached, while I Don’t See Colour, with its congas and toms that feel all throwback 2000s Timbaland/Pharrell doesn’t disguise any more, with the lyrics starting to come so to the front of the mix that it’s impossible to ignore: “When you see the black man, its riots and terror
But when I talk about slavery, you weren’t there, how convenient“. And as the album progresses, the music sits further and further back, leaving you no escape from the message: its hooked you in, and now you’re going to listen. Because this is an album that takes the messages of black consciousness, racism, oppression, and burns the lived experience into the listener’s brain. You will not escape, because you cannot.
Black Dogs punk feel shouts straight-up racism and painful, paranoid memories of everyday aggressions. Whip Cracker takes it up ever further notches, pared back to only a kick drum and unconcealed anger: “Whip your hands / whip your ass / Whip your man’s whip / This ain’t the 50s, you ain’t talkin’ shit / Know your place, know your role / ‘Fore you get tripped / You ain’t no masters / Your place has been flipped‘, and when the guitar and bass rides in, it sounds like Prince, but with Killer Mike’s flow injected. A subversion not even across two songs, but in the middle of one. And this is, remember, a 23-year old man with so much material to work from, because – starkly, and unadorned – this is the reality for black people everywhere. And his statement, and its power, is something visceral to behold amongst the musical alchemy.
There is some respite, with Easy‘s familiar-sounding 80s patterns, and A Song About Fishing may sound like a closing credits track, but the fishless lake is Owusu’s existence casting itself into a life without happiness. This is the beauty of the album in one perfect example: hooks and melodies to love, with a lyrical message as bleak as anything can get. If No Looking Back sounds like an anachronism, it is. Originally the album closer, its 60s-soul was felt way too positive and sugar-coated to really end the record, which is why Bye Bye exists: an edgy, but 80s-soul and funk-flecked nugget that slips in bleakness aplenty: “How do I breathe with my hands on my own throat?”.
It’s often the case I go – as many do – on a journey with any album. But this in an odyssey. A fable. Even as you try to consume the album’s kaleidoscopic nature, its melodic whirlwind, its length, it takes investment to start to see the dust settle. It’s a good half a dozen listens before songs start to emerge from the storm, and when that happens, it’s a beautiful experience, because you can’t but admire the talent on display. And as with the album’s narrative, there’s a story behind its creation: from mainly working across EPs and singles with beats and computers, Owusu wanted a looser ‘jammed’ feel to the album, so enlisted a collection of brilliant musicians – Callinan on guitar, World Champion’s Julian Sudek on drums, and Andrew Klippel, label Ourness’ founder on keys and house producer Touch Sensitive on bass – and went through six days of mammoth sessions where inspirations were played to the band, and songs were sketched out from the jams and lyrics worked on. Plucked from the best of 50+ hours, out of which the songs emerged. It’s a hugely ambitious method, and one that, without the talent and filter to make it work – both from the superlative talents of the group of musicians to thread it together and its leader to distil that into its final form – could’ve easily resulted in an overblown, confused effort that sunk without trace. But once you read about Genesis Owusu’s life, inspirations and hear him talk about what his music means to him, once again, Smiling…. seems more and more likely as a result.
The music is only half the story. As a first-generation immigrant into a country with a troubled racial history, his inspirations came from a palette of video games – lauded Xbox title Jet Set Radio Future ‘melted my brain‘ as a kid – hip-hop – Lupe Fiasco’s wordplay and namechecking Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly as his favourite album (and an obvious thematic touchstone) – and a desire for identity. A kid who decided rather than assimilate, to be his own person, mixing african prints with streetwear (and copping the abuse for it), living with that conflict from the outside world. With this backdrop, the album is something that draws from all of it. I’m an interview he recently stated: “all my favourite songs aren’t singles, so making an album was massively important, and I’d wanted put all of who I am into it“.
But Owusu didn’t want it just to be about the music: working in multiple media, with fashion, song, art, video. They’re all “tools for expression, of me to the fullest extent”. Music is really important but it’s “just the soundtrack, when I’m “trying to make the whole movie”. An all-encompassing artistic vision at this age and stage of a career that its hard not to be wowed by, supported by some striking videos to the album. Playing out the dual-Black Dog metaphors : with depression the ‘internal’ spectre and racism it’s ‘external’ partner, they’re sometimes wrapped up further in a break-up or love song theme, sitting at times as a character within that structure, a three-layer approach that demands time and dedication but reaps big rewards. The whole album is an exercise in taking musically dazzling methods then wrapping the lyrics into it so seamlessly, that it takes considered effort – and in this case, my actual reading of so much of the lyrics – to really get under that surface. But it’s stealth, a trojan horse effort that serves as a double-whammy when those words truly hit.
And they are an uncomfortable listen, but they are vital. I can’t possibly identify with much of that lived experience, but the energy, the anger, the rage that drips from the verses is impossible to ignore. Cast against the soul majesty of Sault, or Arlo Parks’ odes to angst-ridden teenage existence as a person of colour, and even RTJ’s nihilistic brutalism, this feels like it trumps even that. There is no sugar-coating, no desire to. But the unfiltered nature is as powerful as anything around it: “They passed the time / She gave her lies / He gave his life / Paid the price / In flashing lights / To gain his rights” in Easy. Dealing with the black dog as depression – something I can connect to far more – whether as a comment on gang culture clichés or the alpha-male assumptions of his appearance: “All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off / Scars inside our shoes but we just tap it off, clap it off” in The Other Black Dog, or “My other half that I swore I ain’t miss / Toxic, hundred percent batshit / Took my hand and started holding me down / Flicked thе crown, and said / You’ve got to let me drown“. It’s hard not to feel its impact in that shape-shifting flow.
Owusu talked of making the album he wanted to, free from any self-imposed expectation, with a desire to diverge from the soul/funk beats’n’drums hip-hop of his EPs, and its both admirable that – with all his confessed tumult – he can have the lack of ego and conviction to do that. Also that he can take all these ingredients and still come up with a work of such contrast and confidence as Smiling With No Teeth is, almost in a musical and cultural world of his own making. It feels like an album that could be only made on debut – that time when an artist can come to something with a vision that’s full of energy and unrestricted by critical expectation, or relative worry – but given its fully-formed vision, it’s hard not to wonder at the potential that lies in Genesis Owusu’s music. The message. The hooks. The colour of the palette. And tapping into something vital. Something that’s not just a reaction to the BLM-affected time we live in (in a recent podcast he was asked if that affected how he made the album and calmly explained that this has been a comment on his whole life) but the aggressions that pockmark a young black man’s life, character, mental health, outlook and future. This is, at it’s core, a deeply personal album, with focus and craft stupefying for someone in their early 20s. The justice will be if the album gets acclaim that it deserves when it can’t yet be toured or promoted in the usual way.
And to think I almost didn’t choose it.