The trippy, wobbling hip-hop produced by THEESatisfaction (aka Seattle’s Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White) is a breath of rare air, a genre offshoot akin only to label mate and collaborator Shabazz Palaces. When they guested on Ishmael Butler/Palaceer Lazaro’s masterpiece, Black Up, it was as if a pair of futuristic alien-angels had floated down to a Sun Ra jazz temple. While they haven’t repeated the near perfection of that LP, they’ve certainly captured its energy and made it their own on their Sub Pop debut, awE naturalE.
Near the center of the disc, adrift in the spacey sea of droning R&B, sits “QueenS”, a track that sums up THEESatisfaction’s context in modern music succinctly. The swirling, shifting loop and simple beat work underneath a strong mantra: “Whatever you do, don’t funk with my groove.” While they certainly mine bigger issues on the disc (particularly those of race and class), the dominance of the groove remains a part of the mix. On that same track, they insist on their difference from the brash, aggressive, egoist hip-hop of so many contemporaries, repeating the lines “Leave your face at the door/Turn off your swag/Check your bag.” This is clearly a different sort of hip-hop, one that rewards in its ethos and pleases in its surreal drones, all in equal doses.
While the trance-like quality of the instrumentals (produced exclusively by the duo) works as a cohesive element, the repetition of sounds and types necessarily needs a counterbalance to stop from winding up in a tired, closed loop. The lush, beautiful vocal harmonies that pervade the album seem to demand the intense, staccato rapping peppered throughout the album (including appearances from Butler on “Enchantruss” and “God”). While the drone is definitely a larger component of the mix, the worlds come together at the necessary moments to keep things moving.
Although the album relies on both halves to thrive, the strongest individual tracks are the ones that integrate the two together. “Enchantruss” builds off of a psychedelic mix of pitch-shifted, spiraled vocal loop, crackling electronic percussion, and plush vocal harmonies, almost like a soulful cut from The Knife.
That said, the experimental backing consistently elevates strong verses, here tackling religious and social issues. Butler’s verse includes a note on learning at “the free lunch program,” while Irons discusses “the black Jesus/Meaning of course he’s white.” Meanwhile, the sense of drifting through a sea of psychedelia is enforced by Harris-White’s take that “twirling towards destiny, from what I know/Can be a tricky thing.” This brand of psychedelic hip-hop aims to challenge preconceptions methodically, luring you into a new perspective instead of hammering it in.
The loops aren’t just pushing a mellow agenda, though. “Sweat” relies on a distorted, shifted trumpet sample and island-fresh rhythm, a smooth jam calling for the dance floor. Sultry moans and harmonies serve as the background for stellar verses about “committing love connection crimes” and the like, everything oozing seduction. The playful two-step of “Bitch”, with its clacking percussion, handclaps, and bouncing bass line, is similarly super-charged, this time sly and demanding.
Some tracks rely heavily on a single set of sounds, drifting into repetition without as strong a droning effect. The loop on “Deeper” starts out a little irritating, gets comfortable upon repetition, and then drills back into agitation after a while. The reverse is true for most of the songs–their engaging loops lull you into a mindless pleasure before bringing you back to the top–so this exception is a jarring one. Similarly, the fade-out mid-verse on closing track “naturalE” seems like an odd choice for a record so succinctly and tightly ordered.
The 13 songs on the album clock at a brief 30 minutes, but the disc can settle in for a couple of listens, lingering like an existential cloud. The distorted piano and vocal loops and simple drum patterns do tend to bleed into each other, and the songs run on the short side, but together they’re a mesmerizing set.
Essential Tracks: “QueenS”, “Enchantruss”, and “Sweat”