Northern State: Can I Keep This Pen?

[23 September 2007]

By Evan Sawdey

PopMatters Interviews Editor

It’s 2002!  You’re probably still reeling over that long-awaited release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and can’t get the Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So” out of your head.  Yet you may have forgotten one of this year’s most oddball releases: the debut album from Northern State.  Mainly because it’s not every day that you hear about a rap group of three college-educated white girls who go under the names Hesta Prynn, Guinea Love, and DJ Sprout.  They sure do use those five-dollar words to the max.  It’s not the greatest record of the year, but a fun diversion.  I sure do wonder if we’ll hear about them five years from now …

It’s 2007!  Remember that group of college-educated white girls who called themselves Northern State and rapped a lot?  Well, they’re back, following a disastrous sophomore album release in 2004 on Sony’s major-label joyride.  Yet, something very strange happened during their five-year career: they grew up.  Though their third album—Can I Keep This Pen?—is far from perfect, it’s still a remarkably accomplished disc that stands as their strongest release yet.

The largest difference this time around is how the three women aren’t trying to impress you with their lyrical prowess.  Now they’re actually talking about themes, crafting character pieces with beats that are uniformly stronger all around.  “Things I’ll Do” is about both doing all the work in a relationship while also bragging about how easy it is to do said work, all while riding a gritty mid-tempo beat.  The excellent, album-highlight “Sucka Mofo” is a fast-paced club track where the trio disses posers with their own unique flair (“Soon you’re gonna be / Spinning like rotisserie”).  The new wave-styled “Better Already” is a left-field empowerment anthem of self-realization that works well.  Though it would be easy to qualify them as posers (a criticism that has dogged them since day one), their flow is absolutely impeccable, as evidenced by the flawless nature in which this twisty verse is spit:

Deep water, deep cracks
Deep holes and decreases
Sleeping dreams and broken pieces
Pick them up and make them fit
Quit or don’t quit, get evens
Some new shit you can’t go even

However, Pen does run out of ink a couple of times: the laid-back “Cowboy Man” doesn’t really cohere together as a full song (mainly due to the jarring mix of folksy acoustic guitars and sci-fi keyboards), the dramatic closer “Fall Apart” rides a great beat but the computer-filtered cooing drains more tension then it adds, and “The Three Amigas” just falls flat.  “Oooh Girl” is a toss-off from their previous albums, where their wordiness just gets the better of them:

Winners never quit, quitters never win
I’m lanky and go by the name of Hesta Prynn
I haven’t seen you since we were in West Berlin
Now y’all be lookin’ like my Siamese twin

(Knock, knock) Who’s there, Prynn?  How ya been?
Do you still have my copy of Huckleberry Finn?
It’s like round and round we go one more ‘gain
I’m sorry, can I keep this pen?

It’s moments like these that mar the album’s flow, making it easy to overlook fantastic little gems like the rock-ready “Iluvitwhenya” and the surprisingly sweet ballad “Run Off the Road”.  Like all their albums, it’s haphazard, but never before have the highs been this high.  If the group continues down this road of near-maturity, they may very well be on the verge of releasing an album that’s not only solid, but possibly even revelatory.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/northern-state-can-i-keep-this-pen/