[27 March 2012]
There are many things that set female MC/vocalist duo THEESatisfaction apart in the largely male/straight/materialistic world of contemporary hip-hop. They are partners both in music and in love, Afroed feministas whose lyrics explore issues of race, class and gender with a conviction and clarity that is altogether lacking in their more mainstream counterparts. While their unapologetic air of individualism, politicized lyrical content, and proclivity for DIY production techniques may garner comparisons to early millennial art school rappers such as Peaches and MIA, their jazz based arrangements and MC Stasia Irons’ smooth and laid back flow are more reminiscent of early Q-Tip or frequent collaborator Ishmael Butler’s work with Digable Planets. Add to that the vivid textures of Catherine Harris-White’s singing voice which hovers somewhere between the hypnotic soul delivery of Erykah Badu and the R&B revelry of Stevie Wonder, and you’ve got THEESatisfaction’s futuristic blend of funk, soul and hip-hop. But these two never work in isolation. Rather, their voices merge and intertwine in harmonic unison and symbiotic rhyme patterns that feel both effortless and masterful on track after track.
The duo writes and records all of their own music, and, over the past several years, have self-released a series of free mix tapes, establishing their credibility within Seattle’s thriving underground hip-hop scene, and eventually catching the attention of Sub Pop Records who are now releasing their debut full length album, awE naturalE. Producer Erik Blood helmed the boards for the album, expanding their previously homemade sounds into a more polished, radio-ready format. The result is an emancipatory party record for the 21st century that pushes beyond the confines of genre to arrive at a sound that is uniquely THEESatisfaction.
After a triumphant, shuffling instrumental of rising vocal loops and horns, “Bitch” opens with the words “You know you like that sound”, ushering in a funk infused, minimalist groove of syncopated bass and hand claps. The track’s lyrics spin a tale of hooking up with someone else’s girl, flipping the traditional male centered brag rap by framing it from a queer female perspective. Then, the lush vocal harmonies and spare piano chords of “Earthseed”, which contains subtle echoes of Lauryn Hill, give way to an abstract rhyme scheme containing images such as: “Hitler stashed Obamas / Waving army coloured sashes / Rainbow flags blowing / Burning crosses, sprinkled ashes”, and ends with the proclamation “THEESatisfaction could give a … about these fascists”. This conceptual socio-political critique opens the doors to the album’s most full-on party song, the ridiculously infectious disco funk of “QueenS” which climaxes with the demand that “You better bring yourself”, repeated over and over to the pulse of the song’s propulsive electro dance rhythm.
The latter half of the album moves into more hip-hop centered material, beginning with the instrumental track “Juiced” that occupies the same sonic territory as Seattle comrades Shabazz Palaces with its chopped up beat, swirling synth pads and fluttering wind chime tones. Then, on “God”, Palaceer Larazo takes a turn on the mic over an upright bass and piano sample, and when the kick and snare drop in, it’s a groove that harkens back to the MC’s Blowout Comb era combination of tripped out wordplay and dissonant jazz track repurposing. But when the chorus drops, it’s pure THEESatisfaction. “Enchantruss” is built from a warped and chopped up vocal sample and a raw, down tempo beat of cavernous bass hits and subtly distorted synth tones. The clambering, almost cacophonous instrumental adds contrast to the song’s lush vocal harmonies as Palaceer Larazo and THEESatisfaction weave deftly delivered rhymes in and out of the complex sonic structure. Other highlights on the album include “Needs”, a laid back ode to self actualization built around a churning, bass heavy groove and the final cut, “naturalE”, with its explosive, cymbal heavy beat of fits and starts that serves as a dramatic accentuation of the track’s dense and abstract lyricism.
With 13 songs in only 31 minutes, my one complaint about awE naturalE is that I wish it were longer. But perhaps the album’s brevity is one of its strengths, as there are many great hip-hop albums out there that suffer from too much filler, too many interludes and the occasional total misfire. AwE naturalE has none of these blemishes, it’s a solid record through and through, and a powerful testament to hip-hop’s potential for challenging, inspiring and pushing beyond the boundaries of genre toward new and exciting forms of hybridity and interconnection. In addition to the project’s musical merit, THEESatisfaction represents the beginnings of a potential shift in the landscape of hip-hop culture as well. As female artists who write, produce and perform their own material while proudly displaying positive and empowering expressions of their racial and sexual identities, THEESatisfaction brings visibility to an often silenced minority that doesn’t fit the dominant model of the commercial (or often underground) hip-hop artist. And in so doing, they expand the possibilities of hip-hop in ways that go way beyond their music.