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Genesis Owusu’s ‘Smiling With No Teeth’

By Lesley Chow
The Ghanaian-Australian singer is a major new force in hip-hop

Smiling With No Teeth – the title of Canberra singer Genesis Owusu’s debut album – conjures a grinning menace, a threat that’s seductive yet maddening. In the video for the single “The Other Black Dog”, Owusu brandishes a gold-plated smile between facial bandages, shaking to a compulsive beat that gives the illusion of accelerating, getting closer at every moment. But, like a twisted horror show, the clip shows Owusu both pursuing and being pursued: we see him as a leering ghoul as well an anxious figure being hunted down.  

Black dogs are the dominant imagery on this album, and it turns out there are two of them to contend with: the racial slur the Ghanaian-born artist recalls hearing throughout his life in Australia, and the so-called black dog of depression, a more ingenious enemy. The latter has a mythological richness with which mere bigotry could never compete. Owusu’s black dog is a Stygian vision of terror, featuring “the blackest of bones” and a majestic palette of crimson, grey and gold.

On one level, this may be a point of pride: whatever garden-variety racism this country might throw at the narrator, it can’t measure up to the depth and complexity of the tortures he inflicts on himself. In “The Other Black Dog”, depression is a wily, shapeshifting character, insinuating a strange romance with the singer (“You’ll hold me to the sky / I want to be your golden thorn / You’ll love me till you die”). What’s a plain black dog compared with the fantastic demons Owusu devises?

Yet it’s unclear where one fear begins and the other ends. The panted chorus (“I – want – to – be – your – number – one”) has the singer running from the twin horrors that dog him: his paranoid nightmares and the all-too-real experience of racism. In Owusu’s world these two dogs vie for control – but who’s to say that one savage voice doesn’t mimic the other? The video ends with the camera preparing to take a dive inside Owusu’s mouth – a final leap into the void.

When he raps, Owusu is king. He is a major new force in hip-hop, with his fierce yet elliptical wit making him difficult to place – a description of corruption is as elusive as “shining sugars dressed outside the evil”. The structure of his songs is equally disorienting, dealing in sly, contrary associations of word and sound. “The Other Black Dog” begins with guttural, sickening noise giving way to a suave narration (“A tale of black dogs with golden leashes / Broken stories told facetious”), before the panic of the chorus sets in. “Centrefold” coasts on an idyllic summer groove, but cuts into that mood with percussive effects and Owusu’s stuttered vocal. What sounds like a Drake-style number for the ladies is instead a poisoned love letter addressed to the singer’s shadow self. It combines the feeling of luxury and pleasure with a promise to “put my fangs into your dome” and “seep into your bones”.

So much of this record is about slicing through comfort with oddity and dissonance. The minimal “Whip Cracker” is a dazzling exercise in contrasts: in what appears to be a single take, Owusu delivers a blistering lecture on institutionalised misogyny and servitude (“Mammy got the crumbs from your faces / Fed all your babies, still copped the racists / You a woman beater, but you still want respect”). But this manifesto is accompanied by a line of tinkling bells, a soundtrack of almost crystalline purity. These clear, sparkling sounds hold their own against the supercharged tirade, evoking starlight and wonder even as Owusu bursts into fury. They seem to echo and frame his message at certain points, cascading as he sings, “We don’t fuck with neo-Nazi spew”. Midway through, the song adds a freewheeling guitar break, of the kind heard in ’80s stadium rock. The ease and glide of this solo against the teeth-gritting monologue is an irresolvable contradiction – one that gives mystery and nuance to an otherwise polemical song.

The title track is a rare plunge into genre, with harmonies and an ambling rhythm reminiscent of Sly and the Family Stone, yet here again Owusu upsets expectations by moving into a recognisably Australian voice for the spoken-word verse. It’s a much more distinctly Australian accent than most local hip-hop artists tend to use, one that disrupts the track’s vintage soul vibe.

Discordance and irresolution mark this song, as a ’70s homage refuses to gel with the singer’s idiosyncratic pauses and speech rhythms. But this peculiarity works to highlight the spoken sections, as Owusu reflects on the contradictions in his persona, which is both ferocious and self-lacerating (“Society’s stray and the stray’s hound / Caressing and stabbing each other with a technician’s touch”).

Being nimble and unpredictable is important to Owusu, who has expressed a desire to avoid the clichés of funk, retro lounge or Afrofuturism that can be ascribed to black artists. His voice is changeable, sometimes slipping into the grand, lordly tone of Sly Stone or George Clinton; at other times he is disarmingly colloquial.

Owusu has created his own mythology – of gold teeth, black dogs and ghostly horror – and grafted it on to a wildly divergent series of tracks. Smiling With No Teeth is a work of startling range, from the toxic love song “Centrefold” to the social realist “I Don’t See Colour” to the gospel redemption of “No Looking Back” (the latter even hints at a parody of the theme tune from Full House). Fangs, mouths, bones and dogs abound despite the diversity of sounds – is there no genre that can’t be moulded to Owusu’s fascinations?

His gift for symbolism rivals that of Azealia Banks, who also turned her personal demons into the stuff of myth. In Owusu’s case, the toothless smile denotes inscrutability: it’s the expression of a Cheshire cat or joker, signalling amusement without warmth or familiarity. The album makes few concessions to coherence, lurching between styles and emotional affects, with only the artist’s lyrical preoccupations to tie them together. Hard to read and impossible to pin down, Owusu shifts tone throughout, announcing himself as a mercurial artist.

Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow is an Australian writer on music and film. Her book, You’re History: The 12 Strangest Women in Music, will be released in March.

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