Album Review: Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul – Topical Dancer

[DEEWEE; 2022]

During the pandemic, art, culture and music were pretty much stuck in the detention room, the last things on the political agenda over here in the Benelux. The notion that it’s all just recreation, something elitist to help satisfy cheap hedonistic thrills is swiftly debunked yet again by the dynamic Ghent-based duo of Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul. Their combined creative power Trojan Horses pressing issues such as colonialism, xenophobia, and sexism into a spry, rib-tickling, forward-thinking club music.

Topical Dancer says just enough in order to say a lot: even just its quippy title expresses its overarching vision as crisp and elemental as can be. Adigéry and Pupul got the keys to dance legends Soulwax’s home studio and were basically told by the Dewaele brothers to have a fuckton of fun. Surely, the amount of fun the two artists had is pretty obvious through these fourteen fluorescent-lit jams. 

Whether it’s pliant early-to-mid 00s club bangers, extravagant 80s pop or Moroder-ish Italo disco, Adigéry and Pupul have an uncanny knack for bending the familiar into something fresh and exciting. Take “Ceci n’est pas un cliché”, which offers a brilliant recontextualising of empty party mantras (“hey Mister DJ!”) in a subversive way. The trite “waving your hands like you just don’t care” is elucidated as an understated gesture of rejection and disgust, but all the while, the song’s nimble, bass-driven cadence still makes you want to, ahum, well… wave those hands like you just don’t care…? Well, fuck yes!

Literally every song on Topical Dancer cultivates this type of conversational schism, forcing the listener to look closer within themselves while simultaneously helping them rediscover pop music’s potential for generating active change. That’s one heck of an achievement, and Topical Dancer makes it look super effortless. And to be fair, a dumbstruck eureka-moment of being a little wiser and better than yesterday, isn’t that something wholly worth dancing for? 

On Topical Dancer, Adigéry and Pupul navigate the oft-infuriating power of nostalgia to communicate progressive thought. “Making Sense Stop” – with its not-so-subtle nod to Talking Heads – does more or less the same as “Ceci n’est pas un cliché”, albeit with a bit more political subtext. The duo use the Burroughs (who was specifically referenced here) technique to dismantle old conversations and introducing new ones. They accordingly carve through a loop of unintelligible murmuring with a spine-tingling concoction of 00s-era R&B and the glimmering stabs of new wave guitars omnipresent on Grace Jones’ iconic Nightclubbing. These types of stylistic clashes are as understatedly fun as they are innovative, a trait which enchants the record’s matter-of-fact language with an undeniable glow.

Remember that somewhat problematic scene in The Mask where the titular hero goads an entire police ambush into this euphoric mariachi hoedown? Well, Pupul and Adigéry conjure a likewise spell on you; the grooves are impactful but never volatile, lulling you into head-nodding daze, unable to parry the abundance of precise zingers knee-jerking you at every corner. 

Vaguely echoing the 90s ghastly reggae club hit “Informer” by Canadian rapper Snow,  opener “Esperanto” wastes no energy pulling at the threads, converting often several polarising issues into a quizzical, non-judgmental call-and-response game: “Do you carry the burden of this privilege? / Do you see this guilt as leverage?” By posing questions, Adigéry and Pupul circumvent tiresome earnest political correctness, opting to look for solutions over pointing out the maladies. Each line seems carefully designed to act like a stone in a lake that causes a lingering ripple effect.

The smooth silly putty romp ”Blenda” plugs the post-colonial seams Adigéry is confronted with daily as a woman of French-Caribbean descent. Once again, simple lyrical hooks are a great mender: “I am here, because you were there”, Adigéry jests, almost with a mock-nonplussed shrug. Language can be an oppressor, but it can also be a tool for reclamation, and here she boldly turns the short-sighted, tiresome “Go back to your country”-medley in on itself by making it the song’s central hook. It’s a non-invasive whip-smart way to expose the ideas of borders and nationalism as flimsy, pathetic constructs.

Now if Topical Dancer was just about acidic brain-teasers and strip-strutting electro funk, it would remain a really good entry to cap off the infancy of Pupul and Adigéry’s artistic pact. What elevates this album to instant classic are the more experimental tracks, the ones that find the duo toying with more fleshed out narratives. 

“Reappropriate” is a haunting neo-R&B-tinged testimony by Adigéry of sexual abuse, prompted by the #MeToo movement. The song starts claustrophobic, her vocals forgoing the snappy banter to a more hushed, threadbare timbre. Adigéry doesn’t stay within that introspective state for too long however: a pronounced lilting vocal sample engulfs the song like a powerful embrace, lifting it up to a more celebratory level by turning inner gaze outward: “Reappropriate your sexuality / Accept and celebrate your sensuality / The broken child in you, you set her free / Reclaim your womanhood by saying what you need.”

“It Hit Me” is one of the more cinematic moments on Topical Dancer, the music’s repetitive clatter sounding as if a party is taking place in the next room. It seems important to note that much of the songwriting of the record was informed by long talks between Pupul and Adigéry, and this track strikes as one of the more candid snapshots of said conversations. 

The first half of “It Hit Me” focuses on an early memory of Adigéry being catcalled and harassed by a bunch of men, whereas the second half (Adigéry explicitly passes the baton with a “What about you, Bolis”?) is Pupul’s memory of rummaging his father’s cupboard (his father being well-known cartoonist and musician Kamagurka) and unpacking his own adolescent whims. The production plays an active narrative role, as the two stories start with pitched up vocal effects – as if told by their younger selves – and gradually go back to their natural current states once the hook starts. Absolute goosebumps: such a minimalistic, Cronenbergian flashback chapter that somehow doesn’t feel out of place in this cross-cultural, vibrant musical mélange.

Of course, de coup de grace of Topical Dancer is grandiose: “HAHA”, in its notable aesthetic flirtations with French electro pop legends such as Yello and Jean Michel-Jarre, samples Adigéry’s hysterical cackle until it feels glitched into its crude geometric pulse. The only pronounced lyrical hook is “Guess you had to be there”, keeping the in-joke between Pupul and Adigéry just that, like a brief acknowledging whisper on the dancefloor. Though its execution is fun, light and absurd, the despair simmering beneath this one is also extremely palpable. It’s like that iconic scene in Evil Dead 2 when Bruce Campbell opts to laugh with the demonic Deadites to temporarily stave off a more violent reaction.

Closer “Thank You” takes righteous wicked delight messing with the disingenuous plastic-smiled compliments artists are often confronted with, as Adigéry saves her most scathing verbal posterizations for last (“You’re the Columbus to my America”).

Though that’s about as confident as you can end a record, Topical Dancer spirit and heart resonate the deepest on “Ich Mwen”, as Adigéry invites her mother Christiane – who is a singer in various jazz and reggae bands – to examine generational relationships, what it means to be a grandmother, a mother, a daughter. Knowing that Adigéry herself was pregnant during the recording process makes it all the more moving. One line in particular got me: “A child or a parent / There isn’t a big difference / The small ones listen to the big ones / The big ones listen to the small ones.”

Indeed, Topical Dancer is a record for literally anyone. It’s a tool as much as it is an escape hatch. Play this album for your grandparents, your parents, your children, your children’s children, and children yet to be born. For it’s a spiritual palette cleanser as much as it is a physical one.