As many hacky newspaper articles are sure to tell you, 2012 is the “Year of the Female MC.” Look, I don’t besmirch newspaper editors for trying to find a way to squeeze Azealia Banks into the stuffy confines of old gray ladies, but let’s be honest: Lauryn Hill was one of the top three or five MCs of the ‘90s, and women in rap have been just as marginalized in rock. That there are suddenly a bunch of interesting rappers with two X chromosomes does not a trend make.
But at the same time, there’s certainly someone at a major label desk right now, tasked with trying to find the “next” Nicki Minaj. This is how Iggy Azalea gets signed to a real record deal, with ink and everything. And while THEESatisfaction are sure to find themselves tacked on as footnotes in articles about Azealia Banks and Kreayshawn later this year because the group features two female MCs (Stasia Irons & Catherine Harris-White), know this: their Sub Pop debut awE naturalE is, with Heems’ Nehru Jackets excluded, this year’s most artistically complete hip-hop album. Imagining a new lane between the spacious electro future-rap of labelmates Shabazz Palaces and Spoek Mathambo, the Native Tongues and the neo-soul rap of Lauryn Hill, awE naturalE is a triumph from front to back.
THEESatisfaction first made a splash last year, when their soulful voices broke through the stream-of-consciousness flow of Ishmael Butler’s Shabazz Palaces album, Black Up. Since his name has helped THEESatisfaction get noticed outside of the Seattle stomping grounds they’ve been working in since 2008, he’s unavoidable when discussing awE naturalE, particularly because it’s clear the influence was two-ways. THEESatisfaction’s own compositions bear the splintered vibes of Shabazz Palaces’: “Earthseed” and its unsteady percussion and inconsistent beat pattern being the most ample example. But Butler is hard to ignore here for another reason: He pops up a couple times on awE naturalE, lending master class verses to album standout “Enchantruss” and “God.”
But awE naturalE’s greatest strengths lie in its invocations of the conscious black empowerment that fueled the Native Tongues hip-hop renaissance in the early 1990s. Lead single “QueenS,” with its looped vocal beats, is at its heart a fun jam—it plays on the first couple of passes like Queen Latifah doing an electro rap song—but it’s really a song about turning your swag off, standing up for yourself and letting loose. On the outro verse of “Enchantruss” the duo traces a line from drinking gourds, “taking a course in white,” Black Jesus, Orson Welles, and the “war beat drum,” while on “Deeper,” they repeatedly say “my melanin is relevant.” Meanwhile, on “Needs,” they conjure a campfire drum circle as they repeatedly chant, “I need to prove myself,” while spinning twisting verses about men and defining their personalities. But there’s never direct, to the point messages here: Irons and Harris-White rap in splintered thoughts, jumping from complex thought to complex thought, while linking them together with their rich, all-encompassing production.
Considering everything, this album could have out in 1993, which puts THEESatisfaction in a rarer camp than being a female rap group: a new rap group paying honest and true homage to classic sounds with deft skill. Think about it? Did you ever think you’d hear a new hip-hop album that sounds like a long-lost Ladybug Mecca solo album? THEESatisfaction’s awE naturalE is one of the most adventurous and tradition-bending hip-hop albums of the year, and further cements Sub Pop as the place for imaginative, left-field hip-hop.