Smiling With No Teeth
2021 • EXPERIMENTAL/HIP-HOP • REPUBLIC
BEST NEW MUSIC
On his debut album, the Ghanaian-Australian rapper delivers deep lyrics about depression and strong social and political criticism, in addition to showing a bold and catchy sound.
In British folklore, the Black Dog is an allegory for a spectral entity. According to the legends, it is a demon that appears only at night, in the shape of a dog, but bigger than the others and has big and shiny eyes. Its appearance is considered an omen of death. Nowadays, however, this term has taken on new meanings. Some people use it as a metaphor for depression, and others use it as a racist slur. For 22-year-old Ghanaian-Australian rapper Kofi Owusu-Ansah, these two last meanings have had a big impact on his life and are the basis of his excellent debut, Smiling With No Teeth.
In an interview with the NME, Owusu-Ansah said, “Obviously, I knew of the black dog as a metaphor for depression. But then it struck me, I’ve literally been called a black dog in my life with the racial slur connotation.” It is these two facets, these two reasons, these two readings of the same thing that support the sadness, anger, criticism, and the unique serenity of Smiling With No Teeth. In his debut, he brings together all the feelings that involve these two situations, discusses them separately deeply, creates parallels, and establishes lines, which are so strong that only a person who went through what he went through would know how to braid them. In the meantime, he goes in all directions, experimenting with all possible musical styles and genres. In other words, Smiling With No Teeth is rich in composition and sound.
By far, one of the most positive points is the whole context and concept that Owusu did to sustain the album. As already mentioned, the record revolves around the concept of Black Dog. But much more than that, Owusu delivers ambitious compositions that are strong enough to break the line between extremes: you don’t know if at a given moment the infamous Black Dog is himself or if it is something beyond him — in other words, when he sings about it you don’t know if he sings for another or himself. Also, the album is divided into acts, each of which has its own sound, theme, and perspective of the Black Dog. The first eight songs make up the first act, in which he interprets the Black Dog and majority debates themes related to depression. In the next songs, he becomes external to it, becomes empowered, and talks about racism. In the last songs, the third act, we can see him calmer with softer instrumentation, taking the place of peace. In all these facets, however, he does well.
If I had to choose an act to name as the most complete, it would be the first. Although his strongest social criticisms are concentrated in the second phase of the album, here he also gives a brushstroke on this, alongside lighter criticisms of the music industry, love, and depression. The album’s opener, “On the Move!,” features experimental instrumentation and retro video game beats. Much more than opening the album fearlessly, it functions as a kind of initiation ritual. After Owusu screams, thin synthetic voices appear, “I can feel it in my skin/I can feel my soul move/I can feel all of your sin,” as if the Black Dog was entering his soul. From now on, the songs will only get better and better. In “The Other Black Dog,” alongside an instrument that looks like a movie chase, Owusu introduces the whole story, with the Black Dog demon, in the case, the depression, chasing him and his soul. He holds the concept very well before discussing it, something rare these days.
One of the most impressive factors of the whole album is how diverse the sound is. Owusu literally managed to unite opposing sounds and make them work within one album. Take as an example the first songs that carry a very experimental rap sound. A little further, in “Drown,” with Kirin J Callinan, he delivers something totally different, creating a pop-rock track from the 2000s — almost more or less what Foo Fighters and The Killers are doing, but Owusu does it better. Or, look at “Don’t Need You,” the most striking and catchy of the album, which has influences from r&b, alternative, jazz, and pop and builds this very fun chorus. Then, listen to “Gold Chains,” where he debates the problems of the music industry, which has an equally catchy chorus but also sounds more elegant, refined, and even vintage. It’s kind of crazy how he made it all work here.
Moving on to the second act of the album, that’s when we started to see the most daring, political, and provocative lyrics. The first song is the title track of the album, which is also one of the most striking thanks to the vocals, which keep making funny mouth sounds (“bo-oh-oh-ah”), and the lyrics that talk about the sacrifices demanded by life. However, this is only the beginning since from now on the songs will be more direct and experimental. In “I Don’t See Color,” the minimal instrumentation of synthesizers makes you pay attention to his lyrics, which talk about racism. He starts singing “What you think you gon’ do/When the trigger’s on you brother,” and completes later, “When you see the black man, its riots and terror/But when I talk about slavery, you weren’t there, how convenient.” Meanwhile, in “Black Dogs!” he talks about the daily microaggressions he suffers, and in “Easy” he goes even further talking about the relations of colonialism.
In the final stretch of the record is when Owusu delivers the most intriguing tracks, not necessarily because they are surprising or different, but because they are so simple and usual from everything he was doing here. “No Looking Back” has this groovy and fun rhythm, talking about moving forward with learning. But the best is “A Song About Fishing,” which features bright, peaceful pianos and strings. In this song, he takes on a fisherman who, despite never catching fish, returns every day to try again — a metaphor for life about never giving up. “And rise and shine, to dawn I wake/To cast my net in a fishless lake,” he sings. Finally, in “Bye Bye,” he destroys all of that, causing the fact that maybe all of his evil will come back eventually. It is a relatively unnecessary song, both for being forgettable and anti-climatic — just like life. At the end of the day, you’d rather just stay on a boat and fish, you’ll worry about it tomorrow.