Dessa: Your New Favorite Rapper
It’s a good month to be a fan of sometimes dour, sometimes danceable, hyper-literate underground hip-hop. The sun is shining again in Southern California, and along with it comes the release of “A Badly Broken Code,” the long-awaited debut full-length from Dessa of Minneapolis’ Doomtree collective.
If you haven’t heard of Doomtree, they’re the crew responsible for several of the best underground hip-hop records of the last several years. A rarity in hip-hop today, they’re a nine-deep crew (five rappers and four producers) who mash together all of the lyricism and pop-culture IQ of the golden age of rap (whichever era you think that was) with the DIY ethic and aesthetic of Midwestern punk, from Husker Du to Lifter Puller. Doomtree has the loudest beats, the most intense live shows, and the most emotional and clever lyrics in hip hop today.
And out of Doomtree comes Dessa: an accomplished MC, spoken word artist, singer, and writer (her last Doomtree release was a short collection of prose and poetry). She has brought both smooth melodies and acerbic wit to previous Doomtree releases. Now, five years after her debut EP, “False Hopes,” Dessa is unleashing a debut LP with fifteen songs full of sleepless nights, hard liquor, beats courtesy of each Doomtree producer, and enough allusions to make your high school English teacher blush like a child.
All of her strengths are on display in the first single, “Dixon’s Girl.” It’s a song as busy as it is contained. A lesser artist would get lost in the hooks, some sung and some rapped, and a lesser producer than Doomtree crewmember MK Larada would collapse under the weight of clarinet loops, drum breaks (as though he’s smashing loops together with a sledgehammer) and bell accents. It’s an aural smorgasbord in a garter belt seducing your temporal lobes, and it’s got an aluminum baseball bat tucked behind its back.
Then there’s the Cecil Otter produced “Mineshaft 2.” Remember back when rap songs told stories about coming face to face with past romances, pride and forgiveness, and dead potential with a battered liver? This is hip-hop for the ascetic aesthete who doesn’t party so much as drink herself to sleep.
The album’s one low moment is the only song not featuring a Doomtree artist on production, “Matches to Paper Dolls.” It’s the one overwrought song, replete with swollen strings and sped up vocal samples (a la early Kanye West). It’s the only time in the album that you really feel the five-plus years the album has been in the works. Right at the center of the album, it puts into stark relief the stellar second half.
Indeed, this is the rare album where the second half is more than worth waiting for. There’s no filler after the halfway mark, the album picks up with “Dutch,” an anthem for everyone whose smart mouth has ruined a date.
“I keep Poe in the glovebox, Plath on the dash,” she rhymes before delivering “I run on whiskey and risk / and ennui and impatience,” the lines that explain why every uncomfortable, bespectacled rap fanboy fantasizes about going out on a date with Dessa.
And that may be the most unfortunate thing about Dessa as an artist. It’s hard to get past the fact that most of her fan base is more interested in making her their imaginary girlfriend than in her artistic output. And maybe she’s playing to that on “Momento Mori,” a slowed-down, sung number over a fantastic woodwind sample courtesy of Minotaur Shock. Opening with a sketch of an anonymous and sexily mysterious man — just the sort of figure a listener can inhabit — who doesn’t notice that, after the prettiest girl in the room puts on her coat a leaves, “for just one moment… I was the prettiest woman with you.” Oh, we’ve noticed, Dessa.
On the flipside, though, there are lines brimming with confidence, and rightfully so! Who else in rap is rhyming “Geppetto” and “untenable,” or referencing Gabriel García Márquez and David Foster Wallace, or declaring themselves “half Dorothy Parker, half April O’Neal”?
What’s most remarkable throughout the record, though, is the consistent and dumbfounding effortlessness of it all. How does anyone deliver bar after bar of perfect poetry over drum breaks in rap today? And that’s what keeps this from being a perfect record. It’s so good that we have to expect even more from her. Hopefully it won’t be another five years, but in the meantime Dessa will be visiting Pomona and West Hollywood in mid-February with Doomtree crew-mate P.O.S. on the Every Never is Now Tour.
Buy the record, see the show, get a t-shirt, you’ve just discovered your new favorite rapper.