Santigold – 99 cents – Review

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

Even a casual glance at the credits of Santigold’s third album reveals a thrilling and enticing roll-call of collaborators, a dead cert for an entertaining and idiosyncratic listen: Cathy Dennis, Charli XCX, David Sitek, Patrik Berger, the West LA Children’s choir and Rostam Batmanglij to name a few of them.

A comment on the extreme ‘cult of me’ versus artistic worth, which has never been as terrifyingly and casually accepted as it is currently, it’s a perplexing surprise then that half of 99 cents ends up sounding way less than the sum of its considerable parts.

Back when Santigold was Santogold, she was hailed as the latest trend-stealer, an eclectic singer-songwriter whose near-perfect eponymous debut album has become a fascinating foreshadower of the direction that pop would eventually take to the mainstream almost a decade later.

But that was in 2008 and, following her muddled and alienatingly dour follow-up of 2012 Master of My Make-Believe, Santigold now returns afresh and she has never been more welcome or needed. A necessary voice of reason to question the likes of Kanye and their loud and insistent (and frequently misguided) claims of self-genius.

When 99 cents gets it right, Santigold continues to join up the musical dots that she so boldly and confidently established on her debut. The predominant musical styles here are still American new-wave and the dancehall hip-hop genre blurring that earlier songs such as ‘Creator’ and ‘L.E.S. Artists’ exhibited.

These are the sounds that saw Santigold establish herself as an early pioneer of, and collaborator with, Diplo’s pre-EDM sound.

‘Banshee’, for example, is a co-write with pop songwriter extraordinaire Cathy Dennis. It’s exhilarating and kaleidoscopic and trades on that earlier energy brilliantly. With what sounds like a gang of Mini-Me’s (it’s actually Dennis herself, Charli XCX and others) calling the troupes to war (‘step of the edge – cmon!’), it’s an early album highlight.

‘Chasing Shadows’ riffs on 90s hip-hop whilst incorporating Santigold’s very particular kind of song structure and vocal delivery. Nonchalant but piercing, specific and sarcastic, she raps with more of a sung-spoken delivery, and sings in a sweet but precise and cuttingly judgemental way.

‘Who Be Lovin Me’, which features an expectedly drowsy ILOVEMAKONNEN, is a low-slung island-style track which is oddly melancholic and hooky.

Maybe the best song and performance on 99 cents is the autobiographical ‘Run the Races’, which unsentimentally chronicles the process of Santigold becoming a mother. It’s as otherworldly and bewildered as one would imagine the initial stages of parenthood to be, especially from the perspective of an expectant mother.

There are other tracks here – the new wave, Grace Jones-like ‘Rendezvous Girl’; the biting doo-wop hip-hop of ‘All I Got’ – that are serviceable, certainly, but not up to the same very high standard of this handful of standouts.

The remaining songs like ‘Outside the War’ and ‘Walking in a Circle’ are drab musically and even after repeated plays do not engage or become memorable.

As an artist who has outspokenly rejected the necessity of fame in her life and is a self-proclaimed introvert, it is to be presumed that Santigold makes music to satisfy both her creative desires and her fans. Her career is genuinely diverse and now includes acting. She has been a long-term songwriter for the type of stars who she probably critiques on her own music (Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen and Ashlee Simpson).

This is why it is hard to accept that 99 cents is not as sharp and cohesive an exploration of sounds that you want it to be. Santigold makes music because she still wants to, and thank goodness for that, but her strongest work is only occasionally experienced on 99 cents.

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