Dessa’s latest album is about a month away from being released, and the glee I feel from that settling in is making it easier to deal with the trash fire that is 2018. I’ve already celebrated this album in brief capacity, but it’s been a while since I said it was a little better than M.I.A.’s Arular and only slightly worse than DOOM’s Born Like This, and it’s only just dawning on me, literally as I’m typing this, that indie hip-hop of this decade might blow the indie hip-hop of the first decade of this millennium out of the water. Seriously, if I ever do that column, I’ll have to put multiple releases from Death Grips against multiple releases from Run The Jewels against multiple releases from Danny Brown, and I’d have to maintain a “one pick per act” rule or that might envelop the entire list. Whatever, let’s get back on track.
Most successful women who enter hip-hop as a rapper first have to embody or at least co-opt the genre’s tendencies towards hypermasculinity, often having to boast about how hard they party or beat people up or how good they are in the sack. There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong or shameful about this approach (there’s been plenty of great music made from this angle, and even the bad stuff plays better to these ears if only for their incidental endorsement of girl power), but there’s something to be said for contrast. Dessa has put out books of poetry, taught courses at universities, and even spoke at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in 2012—if there’s a flaw in her music, it’s that one occasionally gets the sense she might be overqualified for hip-hop*.
If Dessa were an actress, her False Hopes EP would be a killer demo reel. (The title comes from a discarded name for the collective turned record label called Doomtree, of which Dessa is the CEO, and marks one in a series of releases by Doomtree-associated acts.) “Mineshaft” is one of Dessa’s many wonderful manifestos, an infectious character study with a great beat that sees Dessa rap with enough purpose as to get away with name-checking Anna Karenina. “Everything Floats” trades in “Mineshaft”’s violins for danker drums and a Cecil Otter guest verse and might not have as tight of a lyric sheet but works far better as a setpiece. If none of that sounds all that fun, “Press On” acts as assurance that no, Dessa isn’t above putting out a party track, before settling into “551”, a portrait of a woman in a relationship for safety’s sake rather than love (“He doesn’t make me happy, but he helps to still the shakes”). “Kites”, then, seems to act as a more assuring closer than “551” would have been had False Hopes been only four tracks instead of five.
The brevity is a double-edged sword, actually. On the one hand, being only fifteen minutes long means False Hopes can’t hope to suffer from bloat, and even if the album had a dud track (it doesn’t), it wouldn’t last long enough to poison the well. On the other hand, being only fifteen minutes long leaves one begging for more, and if you were fortunate enough to listen to this close to its release, you’d had have to have waited five years for Dessa to put out a solo album. Given that we’re at a place where you can listen to either album legally with just a few clicks, I’d suggest going for her first solo album, 2010’s A Badly Broken Code, if you want to get the best possible first impression of Dessa. That said, I’d also recommend making time out for this one, if only to get an appreciation for how long Dessa has been so damn good.VERDICT: OWN
*If such a thing is possible.
Read past editions of Own It or Disown It.