“Smiling with No Teeth” was the first experimental hip-hop/pop album I played in the car without my parents thinking I was crazy, largely because it has a stylized sound that everyone can enjoy. Expertly fusing different vocal styles with a blend of beats ranging from post-punk garage to ‘80s dance grooves, Genesis Owusu’s debut album offers an eclectic, alluring taste of the potential future landscape of music.
The unique sound of Owusu’s voice, deep crooning vocals with an oddly compelling blend of accents from Australia and Ghana, immediately draws you in. However, his range of vocal styles is even more astounding. Whether it is singing dreamily about an unsuccessful fishing trip on the aptly named “A Song About Fishing,” aggressively chanting like Henry Rollins on the punk anthem “Black Dogs!” or rapping with the swagger of a studio veteran on “The Other Black Dog,” his voice always feels like the right fit. Like incongruous puzzle pieces pushed together by force, the songs on this project feel roughly different, yet are smoothly connected by a moving narrative about mental health and lost love.
Even though the opening song of the LP, “On the Move!”, feels like a scrapped cut of Death Grips’ “Black Paint,” it helps establish Owusu’s over encompassing metaphor. The “black dog” mentioned so often throughout the record is an obvious symbol for the depression Owusu suffers at the hands of an unnamed partner. The song repeatedly ingrains in the listener’s mind that the black dog is on the move, as Owusu explosively screams that this canine has its fangs set in his soul. How best can someone create a symbol of depression? The obvious answer is by doing an impression of MC Ride, the prince of anguish and front man of aforementioned legendary indie group Death Grips. Running just under two minutes, this track is less of a song and more of a skit meant purely to portray the dangerous power this vicious creature has over the mind of our protagonist. As the record progresses, we begin to learn more about not only the hold this black dog has over Owusu, but also the situation that allowed this dog to begin its conquest.
Following the intro, the record dives in with “The Other Black Dog,” a catchy rap song with a beat so vibrant it is almost too easy to brush aside the painful lyrics. This intentional use of misdirection is obvious from lines like, “All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off/ Scars inside our shoes but we just tap it off, clap it off.” However, as the song slows down, the lyrics shift as well. The catchy beat is gone, now replaced by a sluggish, melodic swing, and it makes the words impossible to ignore. The brutal lyrics move away from the theme of numbing the pain to plainly addressing his suffering with powerfully alliterative lines such as, “Felt the grip it had on all my people/ Heard the screams from park to slum to steeple/ Shining sugars dressed outside the evil.” Just when you think he cannot do any more with the track, a third mesmerizing beat switch takes over the ending, an even slower melody that gently whisks us to the first R&B song on the album, “Centrefold.”
For those less interested in rap, “Centrefold,” “Waitin’ on Ya,” “No Looking Back” and “Gold Chains” provide a groovy R&B sound. Most of the record melds Owusu’s rapping and singing skills together, best seen in the two crown jewels of the album: “Don’t Need You” and “Drown,” two extremely accessible songs that would probably be on the charts if Owusu had any big-name recognition. “Don’t Need You” is the typical anti-love song about being a strong independent single person, but its flows and beats are so undeniably captivating that the song becomes anything other than typical. Try to stop yourself from nodding your head or even belting out the chorus, “Wait could this be true/ I don’t need you … Ah, wait, wait, this is true/ I don’t like you.” You can easily imagine screaming this at the people who have hurt you in the past (or maybe that’s just me). The beat of this song feels very reminiscent of what Jack Stauber was experimenting with on his sophomore LP “Pop Food,” and it works quite well with Owusu’s voice. Furthermore, “Drown” is the ‘80s rock anthem that will brighten any car ride as you feel the breeze with your hand out the window. With snappy lyrics and a flow somewhere between a rap song and Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” it provides an unorthodox combo that I never knew I wanted to hear so badly.
No song on this record feels derivative or gives the impression that Owusu has run out of ideas. Each track is so different from the last that even while you enjoy the current song, you eagerly await what else he has to throw at you. With this amount of vocal talent and such a vast range of instrumental ideas, Owusu has just begun his musical journey and has the potential to continue improving from this fantastic debut record.