Words and talking


Between 2005-2016 I wrote more than 2,000 reviews for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye. Here's a good place to start.

'Chime' is Dessa's most consistent, impactful statement yet


In a more just world the 2017 feminist empowerment anthem would have been Kesha’s “Woman,” and the 2018 installment will be Dessa’s “Fire Drills”: "I'm here to file my report as a vixen of the wolfpack," she declares with a controlled confidence that doesn't mask its anger. "Tell Patient Zero he can have his rib back." This is a blistering indictment of a victimizing, victim-blaming system that asks women to be on the defensive ("We don't say go out and be brave; we say be careful, stay safe") and responsible for anything that happens ("I think a woman's worth, I think that she deserves a better line of work than motherfucking vigilance").

It's a fantastic, meaningful track, and it reminded me of when I interviewed Dessa a few years ago and (fast-forward below to 15:35) she talked about sexism in the music industry in terms of different approaches to magazine photos for male artists and female artists, and behind-the-scenes players whose hands linger too long.

"It's so casual the way that the lines become crossed," she said. "And that stunned me."

Anyway, the music: Dessa, a member of Minneapolis collective Doomtree (including P.O.S., Sims and more), has always been the poet’s party starter, the rap star’s late-night conversationalist, but “Chime,” her third proper solo album (not including "Castor the Twin," which mostly reworked previous material), is the most focused version of her cerebral hip-hop. Chilling opener “Ride” kicks off a series of shades toward the establishment ("Faith is a hammer with a hook for a handle," damn), while the agile “5 out of 6” is a diss track without any attacks or cultural references, just a level-headed declaration of her own ability. I can’t shake the line “Time has a funny kind of violence” on the stirring “Good Grief,” which unexpectedly leads into “Boy Crazy,” which I seem to be misunderstanding if it’s something other than a sweet love song – a downtempo first cousin of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Boy Problems,” perhaps. But nonetheless a nice palate cleanser from a multi-faceted artist.

With her traditional intelligence (the beautiful “Velodrome” marks the second title from the three albums, including “The Chaconne” from “A Badly Broken Code,” that I had to Google the meaning), Dessa challenges easy perceptions with both skepticism and hope -- as in closer “I Hope I’m Wrong,” in which she misses a loved one while doubting there exists a plane in which she will see him again. “Half of You” doesn’t have quite the sting of something like “Code” highlight “Mineshaft II” (on which she sang, “You’ve already been here before, you already know where this goes, you chose this, you know it’s supposed to be over,” and that was the chorus), and I wish she’d stretch out for longer than the 46-second near-freestyle “Shrimp,” which might have elevated into a linguistic workout a la The Roots’ “Web.”

Yet throughout a quick 11 songs in 34 minutes, “Chime” brings more musical precision to Dessa’s underrated arsenal, usually relegated to early-day festival slots and small clubs simply because she isn’t appealing to the attention-starved masses. She’s just being smart and confessional, blurring the line between bombs and ballads (the latter dominating a bit too strongly on the less confrontational last record, “Parts of Speech”) and asking why piano and strings and lyrical fire and spoken-word and heavy beats can’t coexist (I like the frantic energy of Saul Williams, but this is not that). Dessa is dry ice – super-cold and scalding all at once.