Taking the Bitter With the Swede

Adam Tensta's Moody Hip-Hop Soul

by Imran Khan

8 September 2016

One of Sweden's most outspoken and celebrated rappers returns with an album of eerie hip-hop noir, where the heavy grooves luxuriate in the nebulous fog of despair.
Photos by
Daniel Stigefelt courtesy of Adam Tensta 

There’s nothing noticeably “Swedish” about Adam Tensta’s sound when you listen to it—at first. He raps in perfect English and his electro hip-hop feels like the generous servings of American club culture. But listen closer and you’ll hear that infamous, so-called darkness of the Swedish soul lurking beneath his grooves. As such, his sound is hard to pin down. His music may not exactly be defined as Swedish or American or by any particular culture, but it can be described as “a Tensta thing”, as the artist himself is so apt to call it.

Of Swedish, Finnish and Gambian heritage, Adam Taal, born in Tensta, a district of Stockholm, Sweden, spent a childhood like most, growing up on the usual pop culture that dominated the airwaves and television sets in homes across Sweden.

“I was introduced to hip-hop by my big brother,” the rapper explains. “Four years older than me, he knew better. At the time I was into New Kids on The Block, but my brother taught me the ways of NAS, Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan. It wasn’t until later that my interest for Swedish hip-hop was sparked; a local artist named Ayo made it big and inspired a bunch of kids from my area to get into it. I was one of them.”

Adopting the stage name of Adam Tensta, the rapper recorded 2007’s It’s a Tensta Thing, an album of electronic hip-hop with elastic grooves that seemed geared more toward dance clubs than they did ghettoblasters on street corners. The album would produce, among others, a successful single in “Bangin’ On the System”, a death-blast of white noise featuring a drawling rap about poverty and Sweden’s development of urban black culture. In 2008, It’s a Tensta Thing earned Tensta a Grammis (the Swedish equivalent of the Grammy) for best Dance/Hip-Hop/Soul album, pushing the artist even further into the consciousness of Sweden’s music scene.

“The scene is growing,” Tensta says of his country’s hip-hop movement. “I would say that it has exploded during these last recent years. Sonically the scene is driven by trends in the same way the American scene is. I guess we have a tendency of trying to be a mirror image of you guys. Right now, trap is big—a lot of kids are into that even though it’s not working on the charts just yet. You have to recognize that this is a small country, we have a population of 9-10 million in total, so any big scene of ours is almost non-existent compared to the American market. This means that there’s basically no existing alternative market. Locally we share most of each other’s listeners anyway.

“One interesting thing is that independent music is running the Swedish scene. Majors are secondary in a lot of ways.”

If It’s a Tensta Thing was the hammer that made a significant dent in Sweden’s pop culture firmament, then 2011’s Scared of the Dark is the explosive charge that blew it wide open. Still retaining the clubby rhythms of his debut, Tensta opts for punkishly abrasive textures on his sophomore album. On Scared of the Dark, the rapper practices a bluesier squelch of hip-hop and electronica that runs deeper than his debut effort. This time the grooves hit harder, with beats that ring the air with the industrial vibes of a steel mill factory.

Often, the album’s monochrome grey of deserted parking lots and overcast mornings stretch into the darkness of winter nights, evoking empty, snow-lined streets lit by pallid streetlights. Even in the intense, club-packing rhythms or the shredded synths of a crushing groove, the lonely airs of desolation can be clearly felt. Thematically, the album explores the politics of race and economy, detailing the issues of youth violence and racism growing within Sweden’s cultural infrastructure. 

“Contrary to what many believe, Sweden is no exception when it comes to the existence of structural racism,” Tensta maintains. “Non-whites have always suffered at the hands of a system that premieres the norm. Non-white artists have, of course, experienced this too; no walks of life for people of color are excluded.

“The synergy of social movements surfacing and influential voices being outspoken about these issues have sparked a spike in our consciousness regarding the issue of structural racism in Sweden. It has also magnified the reach of the movement in terms of numbers. We are now a valid force in terms of setting our own agenda.”

A number of tracks on Scared of the Dark find pointedly ironic ways to raise the topics of Sweden’s racial matters. The video for the single “The Monkey” features the rapper framed in headshot, intercut with shots of a monkey. It’s refrain, (“monkey see, monkey do, let me get it off of you, what he say is what I say and I don’t even think it’s cool”) outlines the troubles of Sweden’s black culture being misunderstood among the whites, especially within a predominantly white pop culture. Coupled with the video clip’s visuals, the song becomes a disturbing reprimand of cultural misappropriation and the ignorant and derogatory labelling of ethnic minorities.

“Like a Punk”, a meeting of indie-rock drums and breakbeat funk, ensures a full dance floor. A club anthem for sure, it’s also politically-loaded with dialogues on the xenophobic intolerance prevalent in many cultures. The song subtly refers to Tensta’s mixed-race heritage, the matters of being caught between ethnicities, which he parallels with the defiance of punk-rock’s spirit. Ask him to further extrapolate on racial tensions within Sweden’s music industry and you’ll get a profoundly considered response.

“At this year’s Grammis Afro-Swedish artists were represented in eleven of the major categories,” he says. “This is in itself an indicator that media can no longer deny us representation. Respect My Hustle Records, as an independent collective, snatched 13 nominations, something that has never been done before [in Sweden]. As in any other country, major artists have influence, whether they choose to use it or not. In general, I would say that non-white artists in Sweden tend to be close-knit with one another or at least aware of social movements and their surroundings.

“As for the reactions following the spike in the current political / social awareness movement [he refers to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has extended into the European continent], they are expected. Political parties do as they always do: they jump on the bandwagon and act as catalysts. They, of course, set the trends for the wider masses. Parallel to this mainstream machinery, there are separatist groups that actually give a fuck about intersectional analysis; this is, of course, the real forefront of social movements.

“Other than that, there are always people who will do anything in their power to deny structural racism and the symptoms it causes. The far-right is always quick to respond and have developed an online strategy, using flooding commentary and the spreading of misinformation as weapons for their cause.”

On the heels of Scared of the Dark, Tensta released Last Days of Punk, a now rare limited edition vinyl album, before embarking on what is his darkest recording to date. Following a difficult breakup of which the album’s themes are heavily informed, 2015’s The Empty sinks even deeper into the moody depths of electronic noir. 

Where Tensta’s other works have been variations of grooves aimed at the floors of dance clubs, his latest release squarely pitches his hip-hop influences into the contained walls of the bedroom. An extremely personal diary of soured love affairs, The Empty pares back the dancier elements of the rapper’s early work for a far-more pronounced hip-hop sound. Tempos are slowed to moribund speeds and here, the grooves luxuriate in the eerie, nebulous fog of anger and regret.

“It’s cliché to say that the making of The Empty was therapeutic, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was,” Tensta confesses. “This album helped me to get perspective on some of the relationships in my life. To write about them kind of forced me to break them down into more manageable portions, turn them inside out, upside down and really observe them. And that was the whole idea of it: to learn to self-manage relationships in retrospect, since I couldn’t do it in present time.”

In the Swedish winter of his despair, the rapper toys with the more poisonous sentiments of affection, looking at all the aspects of love through the prism of hatred. Some of the raps featured on The Empty are filled with bile, the kind that can only be produced when the heart has been formerly primed with tenderness. On these nine tracks, the tundra of Tensta’s spurned heart is reproduced in the subsonic, bass-heavy beats, which boom from the utter depths of his soul to your sound system’s subwoofers. Much of the album invokes the thunderous, metronomic beats of artists like A$AP Rocky. But often the numbers are engulfed in grey, lugubrious atmospheres that recall the works of Stina Nordenstam.

On the haunted distortions of “Us Against Ourselves”, Tensta imparts a year’s worth of existential gloom over the wintry discharge of spare Nordic jazz and a booming, irregular heartbeat. The metallic slams of the Roots Manuva-meets-The Specials title-track bring a sliver of blues to an otherwise hollowed and spacious groove. Tensta’s raps are cold, terse and unforgiving and he smugly tells an unreliable lover: “Look what you made me do / Now I’m a fool in public / Other girls play this album / But I hope you love it.”

On the ghostly dub beats of “Let Me”, the rapper turns the number into an emotional bomb, which he detonates within the perfectly contained spaces of his heart. The explosion of rage and guilt is released with implacable force.

As a whole, The Empty marks a serious departure for Tensta, whose usual fortitude is now the tip of a fracturing iceberg here, crumbling in the dissolution of his relationships. In sound and theme, the artist has come a long way. “My visions as an artist, writer and producer have always been driven by the thought of not making the same thing too many times,” he reasons. “My progress is never stagnant. It challenges me to re-invent every day. Sonically, I guess my music reflects that.”

Currently, Tensta is in the midst of writing a new album. This time, he’ll stay close to home and create a work that resonates with his homeland while taking inspiration and support from his fellow countrymen. “There are not that many Swedish hip-hop acts that do it for me,” the rapper confesses. “But I’m stoked to hear Erik Lundin’s new music. His EP Suedi was a revolution for Swedish hip-hop.

“Other than that, there’s the rest of the team: Silvana Imam, Michel Dida, Nebay Meles, Leslie Tay, Cherrie and Nisj. I’m also working on a Swedish-language album, but I have the urge of making some more English-language music, too. We’ll just have to see when and in what form. The only thing you can expect is that it won’t sound like anything I’ve done before.”

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