In a recent contentious article, PopMatters’ Evan Sawdey questioned why the band OK Go had stopped making good songs, focusing instead on making catchy videos “at the cost of their credibility.” OK Go’s Damien Kulash had a lot to say about this. In a follow-up interview, Sawdey and Kulash discussed the erosion of boundaries between “THIS type of creativity and THAT type of creativity” in a digital world, and Kulash deconstructed the idea that his band is sacrificing credibility in making videos, pointing out that music today is “a more ephemeral experience, and sometimes a more total and encompassing one.” Sawdey concluded that “the only reason we’re still talking about OK Go to this degree is because they … know how to remain vital and interesting in a market that already has existing binaries in place about what a band should be capable of.” In other words, OK Go has something special: complete creative freedom, and freedom from self-expectations to follow a prescribed career arc. This is germane because an early draft of this review began with the line, “Imagine OK Go without their videos”, the point of which was to draw attention to a growing group of musicians for whom a vital online presence and multimedia approach has opened the door to the kind of freedom Kulash described.
In terms of creative freedom, Die Antwoord (Ninja, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, and DJ Hi-Tek) is right up there with OK Go. The South African rave-rap-zef-weirdos had an unlikely viral video back in 2010 with “Enter the Ninja” and a well-received EP, but their major label debut struggled, and after some friction with Interscope, they were dropped. According to the script with which we are all familiar, they should have disappeared long ago. Except they didn’t. They persisted and continued to grow, building a wide-based multimedia creative platform to showcase their talents. They’ve worked with visual artists, cinematographers, and filmmakers (Harmony Korine wrote and directed their short film Umshini Wam, which has more than a passing similarity to Korine’s Spring Breakers) to produce eye-popping videos and live shows. Their top 3 music videos alone combine for approximately 100 million YouTube views, or almost twice the population of their native country. Even their festival performances can catch a million or more views. That’s a massive online presence and one hell of an alternate revenue stream. Die Antwoord took what was considered an acceptable career arc and flipped it on its head. Now, with their newest album, Donker Mag (“dark power” in Afrikaans), they’ve taken the very idea of what a Die Antwoord album can sound like and flipped it on its head.
A standard complaint about Die Antwoord is that the music is one-dimensional, based on oddball quotables and shock value. But, to quote George Carlin (R.I.P.), “Shock is just another uptown word for surprise”, and Die Antwoord is delightfully surprising. They’re reliably unreliable, and therein lies their genius. Historically, the surprise has been at their hyper-sexual lyrics, violent imagery, mind-bending visuals, and fuck-it-all attitude, and Donker Mag does continue this trend of surprise, but not in the way you’d probably guess from reading its NSFW tracklist.
Die Antwoord have described their work as “exaggerated experience”, and that’s apt. Anger, lust, passion, violence – all things through the lens of Die Antwoord become amplified to the point of deafening. They’ve been this way since the beginning, and the upstarts best known for songs like “I Fink U Freeky” certainly haven’t gone away. “Fuck your rules!” they chant on the chorus of “Happy Go Sucky Fucky”, bringing to mind the vibe of Tyler, the Creator’s “Radicals”. “Raging Zef Boner” begins with a Pinky and the Brain reference, the playfully bouncing beat and off-color content reminiscent of early Eminem singles, while “Pitbull Terrier” is an eardrum assault of rave festival bliss, its video equally engaging if you don’t mind uncomfortable dog-man makeup and a whole lot of stage blood. These are all OK songs that fit into the Die Antwoord canon: goofy premises, lots of swears, and big, big, BIG beats compliments of DJ Hi-Tek, Aphex Twin, and DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill.
But there is also some sleight of hand happening here. What most people don’t realize is that Die Antwoord has conditioned us. From the opening skit of Donker Mag, where Ninja leaves a threatening voice mail, through the end of “Pitbull Terrier”, you already knew what you would hear, and this makes the curve ball second half of the album so unexpected and awesome. It gets … tender.
Take “Moon Love”, which opens with a little girl saying, “Mommy, my heart is broken”, and Ninja cooing to her reassuringly over a gentle twinkle of starlight. Ninja promises to fix her broken heart as the track slowly builds, and we are so conditioned by Die Antwoord’s usual pabulum that on first listen you’re waiting awkwardly for the turn where Ninja goes on a revenge killing spree or Yo-Landi pops up as the girl’s future self, all drug-addled with daddy issues. Instead, it’s just a chorus of drums and echoed voices that bleeds into ethereal closer “Donker Mag”, which sounds like Cloud Cult lyrics sung by Blake Sennett (Rilo Kiley, The Elected) over a Bon Iver instrumental. Yes, I just made all three of those comparisons to a Die Antwoord song. That’s how odd this is, and how refreshing.
The best track on the whole album might be “Strunk”, which almost scans as indie rock with Yo-Landi singing, “Love fucks you up like an evil angel”, over a crooked guitar line. Okay, it’s not exactly Grizzly Bear, but for a group that has oft gotten by on ascending levels of gore and numerous euphemisms for semen, it’s revelatory. These sedate lullabies are the part of Donker Mag that’s, paradoxically, most shocking. They seem actually sincere. Is it another act? Or just another dimension that we haven’t seen – proof that Die Antwoord’s multimedia odyssey isn’t out of surprises just yet?
However, for as refreshing and legitimately good as the second half of Donker Mag is, it’s still not a great album overall. It’s peppered with weak lines, horrid skits, and moments of misogyny so objectionable that you can’t hit skip fast enough. “Pompie” is a solid minute of Yo-Landi laughing that you’ll never get back. “Don’t Fuk Me” and “Do Not Fuck Wif Da Kid” similarly add nothing to the record, though the latter is an interesting one-time listen, Yo-Landi taunting someone in a spine-chilling voice, proof that if she could keep her foul mouth under control, she could voice a truly demented Disney villainess. But all of this — tender ballads, awful skits, and clunker lines alike — seems carefully triangulated, perhaps part of an overall strategy to keep listeners on their toes and maintain the constant low-level cognitive dissonance which accompanies Die Antwoord’s art, a strategy which has taken them from the major label scrap heap to international success as a purely independent act.
A couple of years ago, the group appeared on an episode of web series Taxi Jam, where they performed “Wat Kyk Jy” in a moving van. Ninja and Yo-Landi goofed and laughed and bumbled around like the perennial outsider fuck-ups they play, but they were perfectly in sync when it came time to rap. All business. It seemed emblematic of their career: it’s meant to look perfectly sloppy, but there is a logic and order to the chaos which might be its most intriguing element. It’s as though Die Antwoord has a better sense of what’s going on than anyone else, and they’re keeping themselves positioned exactly where they want to be: completely free and full of creative energy.