THE GREATEST TRICK Genesis Owusu ever pulled was in convincing different groups of us that he was like this, like that, like us.
He isn’t this: a rapper, a soul singer, a pack of insecurities battling with assuredness. He isn’t that: a not so closet rocker bordering on punk, a boy enthralled with synths bordering on electronica, a reader and thinker. He isn’t us, a suburban kid with visions beyond, a black man in a sea of whiteness, a victim of depression with the language to explain.
But as his debut album, Smiling With No Teeth, showed, he is what you want him to be, what you want to see – he is all of those at any one time. What a great trick.
Except the trick is that unlike campaigning politicians talking mining in a hardhat in WA, insularity in RMs in Queensland, internationalism in a light suit in Sydney, and Sydney’s failings in a dark suit in Melbourne, the bugger is real, and he is good. What a bloody great trick.
Which brings us to Struggler, album number two for Kofi Owusu-Ansah – the full name of Canberra’s most significant musical export since Steve Kilbey and Peter Koppes took to the Federal Highway 45 years ago – which expands the sonic potential of that debut and recalibrates the emotional/intellectual territory. The lyrical concept in particular takes as its starting point Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the black dog of depression and cultural aggression which recurred throughout debut replaced by the cockroach of transformation and trepidation.
Is all that enough to pull this trick off again?
Freak Boy repositions post-punk sullenness inside a mid-90s dance world, pushing out and just holding it in simultaneously like a man who knows the only solution is to let himself be free but can’t help but feel the watching eyes. See Ya There on the other hand comes on heavy with the high croon and neediness while the undercarriage is smooth as silk soul.
Stuck To The Fan is a languid in the cabana slide of a song but the lyrics are like burrs under the beach blanket, while Leaving The Light keeps throwing up sonic blasts, like some hectic ‘80s DJ live mixing Michael Sembello’s Maniac, Devo’s version of Working In A Coal Mine, and The Cars’ Let’s Go.
And even if What Comes Will Come has a familiar Casio rhythm box simplicity and easy delivery, and The Roach once again mixes squelch and downtown high like an Antipodean LCD Soundsystem, in the former there is a wash of keyboard sounds, a head down/bum up busy drum diversion and a Drake-like dad jumper awkwardness, while The Roach counteracts the imagery and chill with backing vocals sugar.
These are all bright ideas, the kind of smart moves to segue into change, rather than repeat with too little imagination or shock with too much, that any sensible advisor would recommend. And there’s a lot to like about these songs, from sonics to beats to hooks. It’s just that none of them hit with quite the impact nor hold with quite the same intensity as the peaks of Smiling With No Teeth.
I don’t think it’s just because it’s not new now; it’s more that a certain kind of adventure that hinted at recklessness, and that was made with no expectations, has been replaced by consistency and surefootedness, and an eye to a bigger prize.
It is possible to have both recklessness and surefootedness, but it is tricky to pull off. Devilishly hard even.
SPOTIFY: Listen to Genesis Owusu - Struggler
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Genesis Owusu – Struggler