Die Antwoord's latest is an album that’s too obnoxious when it’s not boring and too boring when it’s not obnoxious.
Die Antwoord are a strange case of a group that is appreciated much less for their actual content than their ability to be drawn-in by the humor of their on and off-stage antics. They aren’t quite a comedy group, but over their surprisingly enduring career, they have been able to capture your attention through bewilderment/repulsion/complication more so than any conventional form of quality.
That’s not a direct criticism, but there’s a reason why most gimmicks tend to get tired, especially when the gimmick is as absurd and questionable as Die Antwoord’s. For seven years now, the group have been proudly repping the Zef movement, their take on what seems to be little more than a bunch of post-Apartheid white South Africans rocking gold teeth, spitting bars about “gangster shit”, and occasionally pulling out blackface. But Die Antwoord have always been able to get away with such culture shock, especially when they push it to the point of hilarity. Their best moments are textbook guilty pleasures, songs that are proud of their lack of substance, using it as a catalyst for their shameless, juiced-up rave hits. Anybody who has seen Die Antwoord live knows that you can put skepticism aside and become intoxicated by the extravaganza of such a formula.
That being said, every time Die Antwoord put out an album, it’s a friendly reminder that there’s a limit to how far they can go, that their music loses most of its touch when you have time to think about it. There are times when Mount Ninji and Da Nice Time Kid seems to hint that their trashiness is taking a new form, that they are willing to amp the self-parody and disregard for conventional aesthetics up to a compelling level. After all, the chemistry between the group’s two main forces -- the slimy, raunchy groans of Ninja and the high-pitched, pixie-shrieks of Yolandi -- has had time to mature. The group even seems to have a newfound understanding of how to make good hip-hop, with Ninja’s flows now able to effectively mirror the saucier side of American radio-rap. Unfortunately, Mount Ninji is an album that’s too obnoxious when it’s not boring and too boring when it’s not obnoxious; there’s seldom a competent middle ground and over the span of an hour, it doesn’t hit a single stride.
Die Antwoord can still occasionally throw you some lowest common denominator ear worms, and, to their credit, these songs have an impressive capacity to be memorable. I would never earnestly jam out to the chaotic, silly, and pretty fucking gross “Daddy”, but Yolandi yelps at such a captivating rhythm on the chorus that I’m not surprised it takes a few days to weed this song out of your head. The same can be said about “Banana Brain”; it’s not good by any means, but it would serve its purpose if it came on at the right time.
However, it’s still pretty telling that songs so irritating are about as good as this strand of Die Antwoord get, because when they try harder to be funny, they are usually little more than bafflingly juvenile. “Shit Just Got Real” is an overblown, perhaps mildly racist, caricature of gangster rap stereotypes where Ninja drops the n-word and talks about how “everybody wants to be a gangster till it’s time to do gangster shit”, going off in a similar way to your drunk uncle doing an out-of-touch impression of a rapper at a family reunion. “Gucci Coochie” sees burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese deliver a hook so stupidly sexual that it gets embarrassing while the Jack Black collab “Rats Rule” is a joke that couldn’t even bother thinking of a punchline. And “Wings on My Penis” is about exactly what you think it is. None of it is funny, let alone listenable.
That being said, at least these tracks have something on their plate, and if you set aside standards, you could potentially be entertained by them. However, there is a whole other side of Mount Ninji that searches for value in the subtle, with songs that try to break the mold by toning it down. “Stoopid Rich” convincingly steals all the tropes of modern radio-rap, but it feels like mimicry more than parody because Die Antwoord doesn’t bring any perspective to the table. After that, the album takes an unfathomable direction with a run of six songs (from “Fat Faded Fuck Face” to closer “I Don’t Care”) where Ninja and Yolandi seem to be performing at a whisper, and when you strip these songs down to their core, this nocturnal nature is all they have. This idea is maybe interesting enough to warrant one song, but definitely not six, and it really turns the album into a trek towards the end.
Having been entertained by Die Antwoord in the past, I could say that Mount Ninji has a saving grace, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it definitely doesn’t. They might try new things from time to time, but every new direction does little more than showcase how banal their gimmick has become. Even a song like “Banana Brain”, which has enough rave influence to be a new highlight in Die Antwoord’s live show, doesn’t have anywhere near the same energy on record. That alone highlights the main takeaway from this record: you can enjoy Die Antwoord when it’s convenient, but why would you ever want to listen to them?