Album: Santigold, "Master of My Make Believe" (Atlantic)
Santigold is a riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in a gold lame tankini. A pop singer who fronts as a bling-drenched diva, rarely attempts anything approaching soul, but still manages to soak your heart with gas, light it on fire and stomp out the flames on her way out the door, she should probably just call all her albums "Not What You Were Expecting" from now on.
And it's not like she makes a lot of them. "Master of My Make Believe" is only her second release, and comes a full four years (and two days) after her debut, back when she was still spelling her name with an extra "o" in the middle. But she makes them count: "Make Believe" is precisely as new as music gets.
She gets compared to fellow genre-bender M.I.A a lot, but it's hard to envision Santigold cavorting with Madonna along the corporate yellow brick road, frankly, let alone indulging herself in a moment of "spontaneous" outrageous rebellion that seemed all too conveniently placed to drive record sales. Further, it's hard to imagine Santigold recording anything as tedious and exposing as "Maya"; Santigold seems to be running the show here, even when she's leaning on big-ticket help like Dave Sitek and two-thirds of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
"GO!" exclaims the electrifying leadoff cut, and it's a three-minute primer of everything this girl has going for her right now. "People want my power and they want my station/storm my Winter Palace but they couldn't take it," Santigold yelps behind a suspiciously New Wavish glitch beat. "Hey hey hey!" Karen O. shouts, keeping time. Building to a lavish, frenetic fall-down climax, it's a perfect single. It does everything it's supposed to do and leaves you demanding more.
"Disparate Youth" doesn't even feature Sitek, but it feels like an allusion to TV On The Radio nevertheless, Santigold doing her best Tunde-floating-through-the-ether behind drums that click like lobster claws and casiotone organs that ascend daintily up polished marble floors. "Freak Like Me" asserts that we are, in fact, all freaks like her. It's the first cut here to sport hip-hop tunings; it almost feels off-putting. But it also feels like maybe this her Gabba Gabba Hey moment. If we can all be freaks like Santigold, then maybe the world gets a little easier for freaks like us.
The album tightropes neatly if not schizophrenically between hyper beep-skronk and calming moments of reflection. "This Isn't Our Parade" is mid-'90s Peter Gabriel or a considerably less German "99 Luftballons" and "The Riot's Gone" pulls the throttle back even further: it's practically a dirge, a pretty one, with a deceptively pugnacious vocal, which Santigold delivers in a smoky, almost coquettish voice: "I've been looking for a fight," she purrs, languorously. "All the trouble that I know, trying to loose the world inside." By the time "The Keepers" comes along -- sprightly homecoming dance peppiness undercut with end-of-the-American-Dream foreboding ("We're the keepers/we sleep in America/our house is burning down": it's got a good beat and you can dance to it, someone would have told Dick Clark in an alternate reality not sponsored by Monsanto) -- you start to realize this is a trick, a sort of lyrical/aural sleight-of-hand that Santigold is especially talented at pulling off.
But if you posit a moment of infectious enthusiasm at the album's outset, "Look at These Hoes" is the bookend, the wasteland companion to this lost American Moment. "Look at these clothes! Look at me!" she raps, assisted ably by Diplo, and her voice seems to spit out a flurry of commands and denouncements. "These bitches ain't fuckin' with me, killa." Is she decrying consumerism or embracing it? Ultimately, it matters about as much as whether Robert Plant was literally bragging about the size of his equipment on "Whole Lotta Love." Either way, it's only rock and roll.
"I got class I can tell they don't," she says, her gaze cold and unfriendly and basically kind of creepy. "Built to last I can tell they won't." Then she blinks. "For the most part."