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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Disturbing or catchy? Die Antwoord pushes boundaries

2012 is as good a year as any for the release of an album listed in the genre of "rave rap" from a South African musical triad self-described as a "total mind-fuck."

One would be hard pressed to find another time when pop music charts included the sounds of at least one sensibly named musical act in the last year (Rihanna counts, Flo-Rida certainly does not); rap has featured the ascendance of the typical anti-rappers (urban skateboarders and stoner suburbanites of all ages, colors and creeds); dubstep and house are now socially acceptable to listen to above the influence (take one look at Skrillex's 3 Grammy's or the attention received by Deadmau5's red-carpet cell-phone prank). Yet this perfect storm was too much for record label Interscope to weather. The home of standard fare sideshows Lady Gaga, LMFAO and the Black Eyed Peas parted ways with Die Antwoord over creative concerns in November.

Unwilling to tone down their sound, the group self-released its second studio album Ten$ion on Jan. 29, a bristling, Afrikaans-fueled shot of adrenaline that both excites and enjoys itself in excess.

Sure, the ingredients are all there. The album's 39 minutes of street-rave instrumentals orchestrated by Antwoord's DJ Hi-Tek alternate between hip-hop head-banging and whatever you would describe good house music as sounding like, complete with "drops" and so on. The group's other two members and resident lyricists, the petite, mullet-sporting and sufficiently creepy Yo-Landi Vi$er and the inked-up, pushing-40 string bean Ninja need no help following the frenetic ebb and flow of the music with their profane, Xhosa-Afrikaans laced tongue-twisters reminiscent of a South African Nicki Minaj and Yelawolf, respectively.

Lastly, but certainly most notably, is the group's trash-grunge image. In a nutshell, "Zef" is the post-apartheid white Afrikaner South African equivalent of trailer trash-if trailer trash also meant creating a music video featuring Pokémon costumes, dancing around in hemp-print boxers, and the jarring presence/work of the late South African painter and DJ Leon Botha, once the world's oldest survivor of progeria. Sprinkle in praise from members of the musical avant-garde like Diplo and fashion collaborations with Alexander Wang, and how many degrees of separation really exist between Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for "the Answer") and Odd Future, A$AP Rocky, or the Black Eyed Peas (post Elephunk)?

Too many or none at all, depending on who you ask. Either way, Ten$ion is most easily summarized as being too much of a good thing.

The album is bookended by "Never Le Nkemise" parts 1 and 2, the first featuring a slowly ascending Xhosa chant and afro-inspired beat.

"I'm indestructible," Ninja boasts as the beat crests, dropping briefly before resurfacing in its all of its throbbing, dissonant, bass-reverberating glory. Ninja rides it out-and most of the album-with largely nonsensical lyrics, but it's their delivery, more than content, that impresses. On the feverish "I Fink U Freeky," Ninja delivers his verse to a beat more suited to dancing than rapping, finding the pocket and (proverbially) holding on for dear life, all the while making the crazy pace feel casual.

No lyrical excerpt would do the song, and their catalog as a whole, as much justice as watching their transfixing Letterman performance, and Letterman's more-than-usual incredulity before and after the song.

His reaction should not be a surprise. The group, the creative brainchild of Ninja (who is actually Watkin Tudor Jones, a veteran of South African rap for more than a decade in various guises) is engineered for maximum spectacle, both with sight and sound. The reaction of the average listener should be one of fatigue-nobody should be able to tolerate nearly an hour of throbbing rave rap without a baseline amount of drugs in their bloodstream or an equally inadvisable fondness for the Insane Clown Posse.

The biggest shock of Ten$ion's horror-core alternative rap brilliance is that a major label would want nothing to do with it. Afrikaans may sound a little funny at first, but is it really that much more disagreeable than arriving to an award show in an embryo?

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