EarthEE, the duo's second album, creates its own singular space, one just as challenging, engaging, and revolutionary as its predecessor.
THEESatisfaction, the musical project from Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons, has been spiritually and sonically connected to fellow Northwest rap innovators Shabazz Palaces for a long while now. Though the two released some mixtapes on their own, it was their appearances on Shabazz Palaces' Black Up that first got them wider recognition, and THEESatisfaction's debut, AwE NaturalE made it clear that attention was well warranted. This was never a story, though, about one group owing the other. The order in which these two bands release records does not suggest one is following the other. In fact, though they share an ethos -- a focus on difference in their music, not on melding traditions and influences into palatable smears but rather in making them clash in new ways -- the results are surprisingly and subtly different.
That much is clear on the second THEESatisfaction album, EarthEE. It suggests up front a comparison to Shabazz Palaces' second album, Lese Majesty, because both albums expand on their predecessors, stretching these sonic palates into otherworldly spaces. But that is about where the comparisons end. Shabazz Palaces' music has always lets its seams show a bit more, but THEESatisfaction -- especially on EarthEE -- challenges a whole other set of listener expectations. The atmosphere is more expansive than AwE NaturalE, the textures more patient, but the fitful structures feel a little bit like Harris-White and Irons are constantly changing the rules just as we think we've got a hold of them.
These aren't rules to a game, but rules to a universe. "Said the bird to the water, may I take a sip?" the two sing on opener "Prophetic Perfection". But the song is not about a small moment, it's a creation story. As keyboards ripple out over the skittering drums, as the duo's vocals fill up space and seem to expand beyond the song's borders, we see this isn't about the bird taking from the water, about the individual taking from the surroundings, but rather the individual becoming one with surroundings even as they form. "The gods were watching our eyes," they tell us next on "No GMO", suggesting our link to something cosmic in reversing the title of Zora Neale Hurston's book. The planet plays a large role, perhaps unsurprisingly, on EarthEE. But despite titles like "No GMO", "Planet for Sale", and "Nature's Candy", to say this album is about the environment is like saying 2001 is about space. From the bird and the water on down, it suggests a connection to our surroundings, but it goes beyond humans and earth, beyond commerce and pollution. The disconnection on "Planet for Sale" ("fake handshakes, mistakes we programming") is personal and pervasive as we're "waiting to be sold [our] future." "Blandland" suggests the connections are wider, rooted in culture and tradition, and laments the watering down of jazz, hip-hop, and other vital traditions for the purpose of mass entertainment. Shabazz's Ishmael Butler joins them on the song, mocking the co-opting of other culture with one perfect, awkward line: "Savoir faire, that's a French word." On EarthEE, these musicians lament using our surroundings as something to pass blindly through, and lament cultures used like checklists, to superficially retread without understanding or adding anything to the tradition.
"Blandland" seems like the most obvious statement of the band's, and the album's, ethos, but the music here suggests a new perspective on landscape, sonic and otherwise. Pulsing synths on the title track get set off-kilter by the start and stop of the shuffling percussion. "Post-Black, Anyway" is all wonky stomp and negative space, even as the voices glide effortlessly over the void. "Universal Perspective" and "WerQ", both featuring Meshell Ndegeocello smoothes these elements over subtly, and the results are rooted in a deep soulfulness that's still isolated in the echo of every snare sound, in the faint, squalling buzz of atmospheric synths that swirl around the track.
What makes EarthEE, in both its moments of reflection and abrasion, is the way is extends the possibilities of its predecessor. AwE NaturalE was an album that upset us in the world we're in, unhinging our understanding of music structure, of the ways in which musical sound, and not just lyrics, can be politically powerful and defiant. It was an album that set our everyday on edge in thrilling ways. EarthEE creates its own singular space, one just as challenging, engaging, and revolutionary. But it's also moving on without you, if you don't keep up. Rarely do albums both invite you in and challenge you the way this album does. At every shifting turn, it asks you to re-evaluate your relationship to the sounds as they -- through speakers or ear buds -- become your surroundings, as they seem to take over. EarthEE is not an album you can listen to passively. It demands engagement, demands you to meet it on its terms sonically and politically. The returns for that investment, and the paths it can open up, are many.