It was love at first MySpace. One link and there I went. During the first chorus of Santogold’s “Creator” I adopted it as my personal theme song and sent the link to my favorite DJ and my closest friends with the words: “This is my new favorite artist. I have no clue how to describe what she’s doing.”
And maybe love always defies explanation. Santi White reborn in the eclectic sound of Santogold calls her own music “a mash up of all that stuff”. Produced by a crew including snowboarders, electronic and dub-based producers like Squeeze and Diplo and sounding like what happens when London, Jamaica, Brooklyn, Philly and an old school Hindi film soundtrack explode out of a Nintendo set, Santogold’s self-titled first album is ska resurrected, punk retooled, drum and base repossessed and pop reborn. This is the soda shack where punk and electronica meet the rhythm of a diasporic dub addiction. You almost have to write a surrealist poem to describe this music.
Santogold’s vocal energy, rhythmic momentum and her tendency to toot, squeak, stutter and shout into the microphone creates a new sonic archive and has made her music attractive to endorsed and unofficial remixers. At the same time the intensity and accessibility of her lyrics make every song fit into the skin of those angry, sexy, brave artist types among us like instant and renewable anthems.
Of course not everyone thinks that Santogold is so miraculously sent from heaven. Some say she’s a watered-down derivative of her friend MIA, an artist whose production team has a lot of overlap with the crew that worked on Santogold’s album. And while the confrontation, teasing, reggae influence and electronic experimentalism that characterize MIA are here, I have to disagree. The two artists are far from interchangeable. MIA’s combination of riot grrl and Le Tigre and early ’90s hip-hop depends heavily on bravado and the shock of a mini-femme gangsta chanting nursery rhymes over gunshots (and I love it! But…) Santogold on the other hand is less confrontation and more content. Her statements are more deliberate and specific and utimately much more profound.
This album is for more than dancing and confusing your liberal white neighbors (though it could be used for that). On this album Santogold literally creates a context for rethinking the possibility of art in an uber-capitalist moment.
Starting with “L.E.S. Artistes”, a futuristic track reminiscent of Annie Lennox, with what sound like robotic cheerleaders clapping in the background, Santogold reminds us of the difference between art and entertainment. Asking questions like “what am I here for?” And giving answers like “you don’t know me I am an introverted excavator”, this track creates a reflective platform for it’s own meaning. Art is something that costs the artist, but which may be “worth what I give up”, if “I could stand up mean for the things that I believe”. Starting here adds sincerity to what might otherwise be misinterpreted as merely a slightly over the top retro pop-performance (especially in the shadow of Santogold’s feature on the scandalous “B.O.O.T.Y.” song by Bangers and Cash).
“You’ll Find a Way” completes Santogold’s critique of the music industry, which is consistent with tone of artists such as Lauryn Hill version 2.0 and Res, whose debut album features a track that Santi White produced. Eschewing the rewards of a hollow market that thrives on disposable one-hit wonders she taunts “No way not me. What you’ve got is not for me” over a synthesized reggae bounce and an echo that makes it sound like she shouting from the back of Babylon. And “Shove It” takes it up a notch making her rejection of the mainstream into a collective one speaking in the “we” and repeating “We think you’re a joke. Shove your hope where it don’t shine.” But in between these almost juvenile chants of rejection the verses spell out the intricate challenges faced by an artist struggling to evolve. At moments we hear the industry yelling back “We think you’re a joke.”
And if there was only going to be one hit on this album, I would be grateful for the distortion and affirmation of “Creator” where Santogold moves from critiquing what she rejects and introduces her full power. “You say no; I say yes I was chosen. And I will deliver the explosion.”
Santogold’s experimentation brings forth “Superman”, a dystopic futuristic love song from a diva that doesn’t need saving, and”Starstruck”, a dizzy stalker fan mantra. There is also “Lights Out”, a sweet and eerie lullaby that imagines a full power outage that “shuts down the station”, but keeps her “daaarling” safe and “locked in tight” and the marching song “Unstoppable”, illustrating what it takes for a fiercely fresh woman to protect herself from the “boys on the block”.
This album is a place to crash, boots to wear, pepper spray to fight back with and charcoal to dirty your hands. If the struggles of urban artists sound like this, these 12 anthems ensure that starving will never go out of style.