ALBUM REVIEW: Genesis Owusu, Smiling With No Teeth
All great albums, like paintings, start with a strong foundational canvas and a palette with rich colors. Otherwise, you end up with an ugly mess of unorganized brush strokes or even worse, a giant IKEA print that resembles a painting but is just a copy of a copy of a copy (more on this in a second). For years, Kofi Owusu-Ansah (aka. Genesis Owusu) was toiling away as a streaming artist, playing the singles game and making music that seemed to fit into playlists. While it netted him a fanbase, a Bose commercial and plenty of streams, the creative fulfillment wasn’t fully there. “Once I knew I was getting the opportunity to make an album...my whole purpose in music kind of came full circle” he said candidly on our AntiArt Podcast Interview, “I was never able to put my full self into my releases until I got the opportunity to make an album”. In the days of old, young apprentices would be able to rise to the status of “master” in the workshop by putting out their “masterpiece”. Many young artists coming through with a debut cannot grasp this concept, or have a major label pushing them towards streams and playlisting. But with Australian music icon Andrew Klippel at the head of the Ourness Record workshop, and Genesis being wise beyond his years, Smiling At No Teeth has proven Genesis as “the master”. If you don’t believe us, just Google who the Australian Recording Academy gave Album of the Year to (spoiler alert: Genesis).
Like I said at the start, SWNT is a painting. The giant, blank canvas represents complete freedom. As a spiritual disciple of the all-powerful Ms. Lauryn Hill, Genesis understands more than most young musicians that it’s art over everything. Art over touring, recording, streams, merch, everything. He saw SWNT as his catapult into the greater musical stratosphere, not just as a means to match his contemporaries. Along with that, his label has been greatly supportive, creatively and financially, of his tunnel-visioned mindset towards the goal of being the next auteur. The palette and paints that it holds are the seemingly endless series of tricks up his sleeve, as well as his influences and some notable studio personnel. Owusu widens the role of the “frontman” to mean anything his heart desires, whether it’s a casual soul crooner on “A Song About Fishing” or a cyberpunk headbanger on “On The Move!”, and he has the talent to shapeshift. “Adaptability is my greatest asset” he told us, and he is 100% correct. He admires people like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Fela Kuti deeply, and the common thread between all four of them is their fearless pursuit of whatever the fuck they want whenever the fuck they want. In addition to that, he has real life Aussie guitar hero Kirin J Callinan ripping solos and bringing an ‘80s flare to it all, Touch Sensitive on bass, Klippel pulling it all together in various roles, and a series of other like-minded individuals racing towards a single purpose.
Now let’s talk about the brush strokes, aka the songs and their ever-evolving themes. On first listen, the main throughline I picked up was racism and rap commercialism. Songs like “I Don’t See Colour” and the perfect “Whip Cracker” definitely strike me as coming from the To Pimp A Butterfly headspace, a record that Owusu noted as his “favorite album of all time”. On “Whip Cracker” especially, he takes the thesis of TPAB into a different and equally interesting direction. To make a long story short, as a black man in Australia, Genesis experiences racism pretty much everyday of his life. On the track, he characterizes these experiences plus the rampant misogyny of similar characters into this crew at a bar, and proceeds to kick the shit out of them with rock. “Whip your hands, whip your ass/Whip your man's whip/This ain't the 50s, you ain't talkin' shit/Know your place, know your role/'Fore you get tripped/You ain't no masters/Your place has been flipped”. While it is visceral and immediate, the history and internalized issues behind the anger are intricately explained and therefore hit so much harder. Meanwhile, singles like “Gold Chains” felt like a send-up of jewelry and excess in rap music only, but that was before I re-listened in a non-critical context.
I reviewed this record when I first came out and it wasn’t until I watched another master at work, Anthony Fantano, that I realized I was missing a giant piece of the puzzle. Depression, as well as temporary solutions to deep seeded problems, is the key to understanding this entire record. Even the immediate and justified violence on “Whip Cracker” feels like a temporary wish fulfillment that doesn’t ultimately “get rid of racism”, because it’s not that easy. “Gold Chains” and the title track are extremely important back-to-back, because they emphasize the emptiness that Owusu feels in regards to many things. Particularly on the latter cut, he dives into this culture of instant gratification that has left everyone feeling drained. Everyone wants to play out in the sun without being there for the rain. Everyone wants to give a wide, toothy grin to show they’re ok, but without teeth, it just looks creepy, conveying the opposite of the intended emotion. On a musical level, I love the way the chorus ramps up and continues to add new voices as it moves along, culminating in this grand gesture at the end. With these communal voices and all these soloing guitars, it’s hard to remember that this is a song about feeling worthless.
From there, this concept of the “black dog” arises, and it’s another one that evaded me on first listen. Now, I see it as a representation of Owusu’s depression, almost like a Ryuk character. Yes, it follows him around and often good things don’t spawn from it, but it can also play guitar, drums and bass. While he doesn’t need it and actively tries to swear it off on songs like “Don’t Need You” (love this song btw), he can’t help but retreat to harness its power. Especially on tracks like “Black Dogs!”, the concept manifests itself as some of the best rock music of the year. “All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off” he sings on “The Other Black Dog”, a great summation of this interplay between deep pain and great art. Elsewhere, like on the Anti Grammy nominated rock banger “Drown” with Kirin J Callinan, he tries to dance himself clean but ends up in a darker, deep state of being. The fact that this could easily be played during a soccer game or in a commercial is my favorite part, like “Semi Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind or “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People, this sunniness of it all masks all the hurt. It’s like a massive slab of gold sinking to the bottom of the sea. Trying to pull it up to the surface will end in fatigue and eventually death, but it’s worth a shot!!
The suite at the very end of the record was my least favorite on first listen, but checking it out now makes me understand something very important. This album is not a series of “suites” or “segments of sound”, it is a cohesive body of work that is more than the sum of its parts. Sure I like “The Other Black Dog” and “Whip Cracker” the most, but without the bittersweet closure of “No Looking Back” or “Bye Bye”, the anger and sadness is all that remains. That’s why there are so many genres on this album, it is a fluid work that attempts and mostly succeeds at capturing a varied and realistic range of emotions. Even on “Bye Bye”, Genesis is still talking about crawling back to this person or a toxic feeling, it’s not a completely neat bow. As someone who takes Sugar Ray’s “When It’s Over” as a post-relationship compass far too often, I absolutely fuck with this. No matter how many therapy sessions you go to, no matter how many times someone proves to me how shitty they are, no matter what all my friends say, oftentimes there is this feeling that stupidly has me crawling back for more torment. It’s the same feeling that continuously brings me back to this album, despite how heartbreaking it can be.
The very best part about this record to me is how open to interpretation it is. With all these often interlocking big concepts, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact intent, but that’s the whole point. As the cliche goes, once art is released, it no longer belongs to the artist. Whether a casual music fan wants to see what he’s doing as fun and lively, or a nerd like me wants to dive so deeply into it that they actually speak to the man himself, it’s all equally valid for Owusu. While slowthai struggled earlier this year with trying to formulate a cohesive concept record, Genesis’s approach is effortless in the best way possible. The ideas flow out of him and the music follows, and regardless of genre, theme, attitude, meaning, or whatever else, we get 53 minutes of incredible music that appeals to the soul. Thoughts and opinions are subjective, but when an album hits your heart, it becomes undeniable. When you’re this secure on a creative, emotional and technical level, up is the only place to go, and after four ARIA Spikes won, Genesis is soaring.