In two years’ time, a multi-hyphenate artist like Dessa would be considered nicher than niche. The ittiest bittiest niche– like the inside of a sake cup or a walnut shell. This year, understanding of a rapper/singer/spoken word artist has been lubed up a bit by the meteoric rise of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. While Dessa’s latest work Parts of Speech may still come off as alien to your average pop listener, it’s exciting to say that feeling won’t be borne from total ignorance of her mixed genres. More likely, questions will come from a more general confusion: is this really good? Or is she just dusting off Ani DiFranco’s abandoned pathways?
If you’ve ever loved a dope-ass indie lady, watching Dessa live (with a band or other parts of her hip hop collective Doomtree) will win you over in a heartbeat. She is fiercely commanding, with a voice like spun silk and a kind of cool that fills the room. Unfortunately, this presence doesn’t translate incredibly well to her recorded work. For Parts of Speech, despite all its’ eclectic tendrils, the lasting impression is similar to spending a night at a really decent open mic. It’s nice, but when pressed, you probably can’t put your finger on a great song.
The album feels a lot like Ani DiFranco’s Revelling/Reckoning; it’s mournfully pretty, but also a little lost at sea. Instrumentation alternates between piano- and guitar-driven, with more interesting choices made in the beat department. The vocals, while always pleasant, rarely move above “hella mellow” on the energy scale– though if you’re familiar with her live style, you’ll be able to hear the subtle oomph Dessa has tucked within even the softest word. Notable tracks, mostly for their lyrical content, include spunky “Skeleton Key,” wistful “Annabelle” and the rap-centric “Warsaw.”
As many interviewers are keen to mention to her, there aren’t a lot of prominent female MCs these days– nor any women getting a lot of mileage out of the singer-songwriter side of Dessa’s creative coin. But like many genre-defying artists, Dessa seems to have the strength to soldier on across the artistic battlefield for years to come. Though Parts of Speech might not be the record that takes her all the way out of the walnut shell, she’s definitely a woman to watch.