At a time when so much of the music industry remains bogged down by labels, Genesis Owusu dwells in a world where genre is blissfully extinct. His domain is colourful and visceral, from bright live shows to handmade flamboyant outfits – and, of course, the music of his debut record, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’. Owusu’s songs are as jaunty as they are raw and raging.
His world is also the extremely white city of Canberra, Australia, where he grew up after being born Kofi Owusu-Ansah in Koforidua, Ghana. Any outsider treatment he twisted to his creative advantage, graduating from early rap forays with his brother (as The Ansah Brothers) to a 2017 debut solo EP ‘Cardrive’, a festoon of singles, and support slots for Sampa The Great and Dead Prez.
To avoid the soul pigeonhole, recording sessions for ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ saw the emcee jam with a motley crew of musicians from the realms of punk, synth, and jazz – all outsider fields, that lend the album its slippery now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t quality. Owusu describes the record as “slathering honey on your demons to make them palatable”. The demons in question: depression and racism, two black dogs sniffing out the interactions between external and internal torment, track by track.
“All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off,” he sings on ‘The Other Black Dog’. This is essentially the modus operandi for the entire album, in which serious topics arrive swathed in all sorts of sounds. Anger wears a pretty mask on ‘Whip Cracker’, which erupts into funky riffs and barked verses: “You ain’t getting saved / I’m on my Malcolm X”. But racism comes under full glare on ‘I Don’t See Colour’, a clipping-esque tirade against white society, religion, and domestic abuse. ‘Drown’ is particularly satisfying: a tongue-in-cheek ‘Summer of 69’, but if Young Fathers or Death Grips wrote it and your fingers bleed from more than just a six-string.
The fifteen songs take on an ambitious stretch of territory, but Owusu handles the ride. ‘Waitin On Ya’ channels Bon Iver or Prince, depending on how generous you’re feeling. ‘Don’t Need You’ moves like a new wave original, while the title track drips like a hot, languid afternoon. ‘Black Dogs’ aren’t the only creatures roaming these wilds: there are glimpses of Gorillaz and Beastie Boys too. Then, unexpectedly, ‘A Song About Fishing’ – a folk-pop lullaby that drifts into the r’n’b of ‘No Looking Back’. Nothing really makes sense, but somehow it all works.
Last week, Owusu covered Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy In The UK’. His blistering performance recasts the protest song for a new world, and showcases his power to channel the right attitude at the right time – and that’s the secret to the success of ‘Smiling With No Teeth’. The record could be shorter, but its disjointed brilliance sweeps away any urge for cohesion. What ties these tracks together is Genesis Owusu’s talent, ambition, and imagination.