A colleague of mine, whose musical tastes triangulate between St. Vincent, Cat Power, and Fucked Up, recently requested a mix of hip-hop that is, in her words, “way too awesome and weird to be on the radio.” One of my first thoughts was Katie Kate (legal name Katherine Finn), the Seattle-based rising star behind 2011’s way fun Flatland. A song like “Tote Bag”, with its inherent melodrama, message of self-empowerment, and unabashed love for canvas accessories, was perfect for the mix, while “Bodyout Princess” threw electro-shade at mainstream hip-hop, showing a talent that didn’t care much about trying to be anyone other than herself. Like other singular identities in the PNW, from Blue Scholars and Macklemore to Shabazz Palaces and Nacho Picasso (who guests on Nation), Kate carries the torch for Seattle’s small but fertile rap scene. For a couple years now Kate has been growing her “way too awesome and weird” brand in a regional market, and she’s working to expand on that with the aptly titled Nation.
Nation is another low-budget thriller in the vein of Flatland, but it’s more expansive, a bass-heavy strand of grit-fem minimalism full of frenetic synths and demented drum loops. It’s an exploration of inner spaces which expand into massive landscapes where canyons represent chances taken, trees represent personal boundaries, lights in the tavern represent safety, and Kate oversees all of it as the massive sculpture on the plain, breathily repeating her mantra on “Rushmore”: “I am set in stone / I am Rushmore / Can’t get rid of me, so talk less, hush more.”
Throughout Nation, Kate’s identity shifts. She’s a mountain. She’s “the very last buffalo.” She’s a survivor in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, her blade slicing through “a fucking field of zombies”. The album careens across this landscape with Kate’s fractured identity as its main focus. It opens with “Visions”, a sub-two minute statement of purpose that finds Kate rapping fiercely over a fuzzy beat and distorted synth hits before dropping immediately into the hand claps of “Canyon”, a song that urges risk-taking around the central theme of leaping into the void.
The entire album was written, composed, and produced by Kate herself, and if you listen closely you can actually hear the desperate panting of A&R heads looking to scoop up “Seattle’s answer to [insert established female act]” as she produces interstellar electropop vaguely reminiscent of Grimes (“Drift”, “Razorblade Fences”) with commentary on the soullessness of pop culture like Lorde (“Fur & Gown”). She also has a talent for darkly spare beats and idiosyncratic lyricism — check her hilarious use of “Sadie Hawkins” as a verb on, well, “Sadie Hawkins”. Nation also comes with a 30-page booklet that gives a peek into the artist’s mind, a constitution of scribbled lists, snippets of poetry, sketches, a quadruple-underlined warning that “ghosts are everywhere”, and notes on BPM options and chord progressions and breathing patterns — a sure sign that what haunts Kate most is the need to work.
Kate injects herself everywhere on Nation, but it’s hard to really get to know her as she leaps to and fro stylistically: bragadocious shit-talking here, reflective whispering there, a dash of straight-up singing, even doing her best Nicki Minaj on “Persephone”. These shifts add an element of restlessness, as though Kate is searching for something. That frenzied energy is clear in “Sadie Hawkins”, which starts with a simple drum loop and guitar line like a bending Jenny & Johnny track that bleeds into acoustic Sleigh Bells, except for 45 seconds when the track fuzzes out into a field of screams and distortion, a nod to Kate’s avant sensibilities. Lyrically, though, the song is bubble gum pop, Kate singing, “I’m gonna Sadie Hawkins you so hard” with playful earnestness. It’s a great song that doesn’t gel with the record as a whole, adding to the feeling of disconnection, like through the fractured prism of Nation, what Kate is really searching for is HER sound.
Despite, or because of, the wide ground that Kate tries to cover, there is a feeling of thinness to Nation at 33 minutes spread over 10 tracks, two of which were released in previous years. There’s a sense that something is building inexorably, of powerful forces working under the surface, but Nation is not the culmination. It’s not Kate’s masterwork, and she seems to realize this. But she’s a force to be reckoned with, and she realizes this, too. As she says in “Visions”, in a statement so matter of fact that it’s easy to miss, “I ain’t even hit my fucking prime”. Nation isn’t an opus. It’s a warning.