Die Antwoord may be strange and engrossing, but are they making good music? Yes and no.
I have to confess that until recently, I had no idea what a Die Antwoord was. But I learned. Oh, how I learned. I learned about them via YouTube, and I learned about them from message boards. I heard endless discussions of Ninja's flow and Yo-Landi's grating high-pitched whine. And here's the thing: I can't make up my mind about them. I don't love them, and I don't really even "like" them that much, but I can't stop listening to this record, at least for this hour or two.
The singles that I checked out prior to doing this review, "Enter the Ninja" (the video that brought them their initial fame), and "Evil Boy" were weirdly catchy, infinitely watchable, and vaguely irritating. Their new record, Ten$ion, follows this pattern flawlessly.
The most immediate upgrade is the production -- the beats have been fattened up, the bass is boomier, and there's a macro, wall of sound appeal to the whole thing. There are also machine gun samples, because those are still shocking to people, for some reason.
However, the one thing that the band can't change are their voices -- Yo-Landi's voice is still irritating as all hell, and Ninja's flow, while impressive (especially his slowly accelerating verse on "I Fink U Freeky") is still an acquired taste (particularly his odd penchant for stopping and starting off the beat).
The instrumentals on the album veer from pastiche (the self-described ode to early '90s "feel-good gangsta shit") to dumb imitation ("I Fink U Freeky"'s synth riff sounds oddly evocative of the theme song to the first Mortal Kombat movie.) Unfortunately, they're nowhere near as unique as Ninja and Yo-Landi's voices -- though pumped to near-Skrillex levels of pummeling, they're not especially interesting or catchy. ("Babys on Fire" is not influenced by the Brian Eno track of the same name, sadly.)
Plenty of people have pointed out that the group is much smarter than their music would have you believe -- Die Antwoord is but one facet of their various pursuits. But you'd be hard-pressed to figure that out from their music. Unfortunately, the problem with much of Ten$ion isn't that it doesn't feel smart -- good music has never, and will never have to be "smart" -- but that it feels deliberately stupid. The group isn't so much challenging expectations or creating deliberately shocking music as they're hoping their absurdist creations will be taken as avant-garde (a practice I've termed "Lady Gaga-ism").
Still, I enjoyed Ten$ion. It's not exactly 2012's most essential recording, but there's a bizarre appeal to tracks like "Fok Julle Naaiers" ("Fuck you all" in Afrikaans). And that's about it. Whether Die Antwoord will be able to move past their own, ahem, "unique" sensibilities and start making music that feels a little more grounded remains to be seen. Of course, that might make it a little more permanent, but would it still be as fun? Who knows.