By Daniel Garrett
Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe
Executive Producer Santi White
Atlantic Recording, 2012
Santigold’s The Master of My Make-Believe is abstract, beat-driven, cool. Dance-worthy and intelligent. Unexpected. On Santigold’s The Master of My Make-Believe, the song “Go!” has a fast, light rhythm with a refrain about people wanting power and status. The singing is throaty without being heavy in “Disparate Youth,” supported by light-toned percussion yet patterned after punk rock; and its opening could be European classical or contemporary dance music—an example of rhythm being transcendent. It has clarity and simplicity—purity. That song has a coolly beautiful arrangement, as do most of the compositions on the album. “God from the Machine” is ethereal, spooky, but rhythmic, textured and tough, its lyrics full of admonition. The collection’s creator, singer and composer Santi White, performing as Santigold, insists on doing something interesting, mixing rock, ska, and techno music—and the discerning and passionate music listener is grateful for her insistence.
Santi White, whose father was a lawyer and mother a psychiatrist, attended private grade school and went to Wesleyan for music and African-American studies; and then Santi worked in the artists and repertoire division of a music label, and, was reported to have worked on songs for performers such as Res and Ashlee Simpson, but Santi White began to want to hear her songs recorded as she heard them in her head. Santi White, who once performed in the ska-punk band Stiffed with John Hill, worked with John Hill and other producers and created during three weeks in 2007 the dubstep-influenced album Creator, released under the name Santogold in 2008, selling more than two-hundred thousand copies. She changed Santogold to Santigold; and the innovation of her work is welcomed now by different musicians in the industry, mainstream and marginal, as well as by people in the art and fashion communities. Santi White, ambitious and determined, is a grown-up, a married woman, her husband being snowboarder-musician Trevor Andrew, but she relishes her youthful impulses, perceptible in her album The Master of My Make–Believe, which features an album jacket portrait by painter Kehinde Wiley and printed lyrics too small to read.
Santigold’s song “Fame,” like everything else here, does not fit into any of the clichés of ethnicity or femininity. Yet her work embodies a refreshing femininity, confident and light. “Fame” has a unique arrangement of sound; and more than playful and public, it is cheerleading. “Freak Like Me” has robotic repetition affirming individuality (intentional contradiction—or a satire of today’s narcissistic, shallow culture of entitlement—or sincere expression?). The poetic and theatrical “This Isn’t Our Parade” has an epical sound, with a reggae lilt and something Caribbean in its refrain (“hey, hey, hey”). Santi White as Santigold treats popular music as something that deserves imagination and innovation; and “The Riot’s Gone” is propelled by an intense, steady drum rhythm and soft singing, and “Pirate in the Water” features a rich volume of voice, drum, and rhythm. “The Keepers” is a bubbly confection; and its antecedents might be Phil Spector and Motown and the songs of the group Blondie featuring Debbie Harry, and most relevant are probably the sound of biracial British punk girls such as Poly Styrene (Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) of punk rock band X-ray Spex and Pauline Black (Belinda Magnus) of ska-band The Selecter, though I am inclined to think also of Donna Summer’s great Casablanca catalog and Prince’s Warner Bros. album Dirty Mind, Diana Ross’s RCA album Swept Away (with “Nobody Makes Me Crazy”), and Michael Jackson’s Epic album Bad. Those recordings, especially by Summer, Ross, and Jackson, are entertaining and they also have heart. “Look at These Hoes” has chanting voice, rapid rhythm, and hip-hop attitude, and the fun “Big Mouth” has attitude too. Honestly, Santigold’s The Master of My Make-Believe can seem both perfect and chilly: in making a commitment to the intelligent and inventive, the calculation may deny warmth even while giving pleasure. The Master of My Make-Believe may be a great album, but if it is, it is probably a minor masterpiece, without enough social vision or philosophical insight to make it more. It is much too soon to say.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. “Imagination is often the liberating element in personality and culture, the key to insight and innovation,” says Daniel Garrett, who has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.