album review: dessa, parts of speech
I used to work in a fast food sushi chain in an airport. I wasn’t good at it, and I resented having to wear a flame retardant uniform despite not working with fire. Apart from stuffing myself with illicit handfuls of sushi rice, the best part about that job was the puzzling company radio station we played. It was full of Japanese Christmas covers and Lana Del Rey. It was a source of constant amusement, which made it all the more surprising when one song sunk into my skin and stayed there.
The Crow isn’t Dessa’s first song, or even from her first album, but it was the one that sent me scampering to the internet to track down her back catalogue, and since then she’s been at the top of my most played. So when I found out she’d put out a new album on the 25th of July and no one had told me, I kind of felt like I hadn’t been invited to my own birthday party.
Parts of Speech is Dessa’s third album released under Doomtree Records since 2010, and it feels almost like the conclusion of a trilogy. I was prepared for the loss of momentum that normally happens around the second or third album, but it didn’t come.
Hip hop has a bad rap (you better believe that pun was intended) in the mainstream media when it comes to women’s rights – it’s seen as all bitches’n’hoes, and nary a suffragette amongst them. This couldn’t be further than the truth, especially for Dessa. Being a half white, half Puerto Rican woman in hip hop can’t be an easy gig, but she’s managed to retain the raw integrity of her earlier work. Anyone who listens to The Bullpen or Dutch (both from her first album) can testify that her work isn’t so much feminist slanted as completely italicised. The awareness of what it means to be a woman runs through everything she writes, and Parts of Speech is no different. She opens the cracks and shows us the vulnerability underneath the tough exterior that we’re all forced to wear. A philosophy graduate and published author, Dessa’s not playing dumb.
In an album full of knockout tracks, a few stand out as showstoppers. The Lamb is an uneasy lyrical ode to an abuser exploring the impossibility of any true forgiveness . ‘If they ask me, I’ll deny it/But I remember what you did..’. It’s also one of the most typically Dessa songs on the album, along with Fighting Fish; soaring vocals, spat-out words, veiled allegory and lyrics that sink into your head and stay long after the tune is over.
Beekeeper, a track from her second album, is reworked here, and it’s testament to her talent that she makes it sound as fresh as the rest. It feels like pulling back the curtain after a play and finding the actors still in character, devising a new ending. In this case, the last act features a new beat and revised vocals. Neither version sounds like a rough draft.
Call Off Your Ghosts, a weary, sparse address to an ex-lover’s lingering presence also deserves a mention. It edges her out of any clearly defined genre, as does Sound the Bells, a melancholic closing track that showcases a musical and vocal elegance surpassing much better known artists.
Parts of Speech is a natural continuation of Dessa’s previous albums. The same thread of love and loss runs through it, like water out of cupped hands. It’s a punch in the face, a caress to the cheek, a knife to the heart. Explosive beats are overlaid by wordplay and tinder-spark imagery, and her voice is not one that can be ignored.