A wide-ranging and audacious debut that explores the effects of racism on the self
“Society’s stray and the stray’s hound, caressing and stabbing each other with a technician’s touch,” Genesis Owusu speak-sings between a gospel choir. The 22-year-old Australian artist has learned to survive as an outsider and finds truth from looking in from the outside. He is a creative faucet, dispensing varied pools of soul, electronica, glitch and dance, incorporating more influences than he leaves out. His debut full-length, Smiling With No Teeth, is nothing less than the feat of a sonic sage.
Owusu investigates the guiding metaphor that breathes life into the conflicts of the LP–the black dogs. When pondering the significance of the black dog as a common metaphor for depression, it dawned on him that it also doubles as one for racism, he remembers being “called a black dog in my life with the racial slur connotation.” For Owusu, the black dogs represent the outer disharmony of racism and the inner disharmony of depression. Racial abuse has caused Owusu to feel like an outsider in his own skin while constantly being categorized into a false conception. Smiling With No Teeth paints a first-hand portrait of this.
The interplay of the black dogs reveals that the two are codependent, the one chasing the other’s tail in a vicious ouroboros. The first is introduced in the opening track, “On the Move!,” which blends bleeding 808s and flakey noise splatters, setting the first into its perpetual circuit to then introduce the other that finds its place just behind. “Somehow, your actions represent a whole race, it’s hard to move different when your face is their face,” he fervently delivers in “I Don’t See Colour” amidst hiccupping glitch jots and a repeating sample of a chanteuse’s single breathy ha.
He exorcises the demons of his conscience via microphone and the music mends him back up. The smooth, orotund bass on “Centrefold” envelops as it leads the song into new rooms of sound, each schematized with its own hue and saturation. The mystically milky autoharp-like synth of “Waitin’ on Ya” balances in the song’s soul structuration between childproof piano chops that don’t cut but massage. Overcome by the rapture, he sensually jubilates in a tenor, finding solace in a higher place free from the iniquities outside the sphere of sound.
But it isn’t always easy-listening. Those songs are the analgesic to the more brash release of the other expiative tracks. “Whip Cracker” flings out polarizing shouts–a la Stefan Burnett of Death Grips–either to a pumping bass kicker or an incongruous funk line; “Black Dogs!” carries over that direct vocal delivery but to the more fitting low and loud punk guitar riff. “Drown” is similarly punky with its gleaming aluminum guitar and escalating synth chirps. Other times the catharsis is subtler. In “Gold Chains,” smooth and serene polyphonic synth chords float up as prismatic pieces of a digitized guitar solo leak out, mangled in parallax. Bubble-lettered confessionals flow out of him.
Working through the wicked vicissitude of the black dogs, Owusu comes through the journey wiser and more self-sure on the last few songs of Smiling With No Teeth. “No Looking Back” is a sutra to looking ahead to possibility rather than being hampered by the immutable past. The songs are barer but bright, like coming out the other side of a tempest to a scintillating revelation. He’s smiling with no teeth, blithely wiling away, head high despite everything. Indomitable.