Album Review: Die Antwoord – Ten$ion

[Zef Recordz; 2012]

On their sophomore effort Ten$ion, Die Antwoord thrust forward with an unprecedented heaviness. Cinematic strings draw ears in, whereupon a South African chant heralds listeners’ return to the Zef Side. Ninja declares “I’m indestructible” with an intonation and meter fit for the first line of an epic arena-rock chorus. His lone vocal portends the triumphant entrance of heavy guitars and crashing drums. Indeed, music strikes on cue. The conveyor, however, is dubstep — well, brostep. An explosion of massive, chainsaw, mid-range wobble occasions a decidedly apt backdrop. The rampant, elastic basslines mirror Ninja’s animated, frivolous, erratic rapping. A second bass drop, accompanying the exclamation “Ninjaaa!!!” recaptures and surpasses the exhilarating hilarity of debut single “Enter the Ninja.”

Next comes standout track “I Fink U Freeky,” propelled by a kick drum stomp, and a synth riff seemingly culled from the soundtrack of a ‘90s aerobics workout. A radical midsection finds Ninja adeptly keeping pace with an increasing tempo. DJ Hi Tek’s “next level” beat and Yo-Landi’s club-ready chorus impart enough pop punch to fashion a compelling dance track from this unconventional structure.

What sets songs such as “I Fink U Freeky” apart from other mainstream, dancefloor bangers is that this group actually seems “freeky.” Die Antwoord, worlds away from your typical rap group, owe much of their positive reception in the indie sphere to the satirical nature of their music. Historically, hip hop has been inextricably linked with notions of life struggle and street cred. Musicians interested in exploring the genre have typically needed to fabricate accounts of troubled upbringings, in order to gain acceptance. Intuitively, the merit of music should depend solely on the music’s quality. On $O$, Die Antwoord mocked the themes of struggle that are ubiquitous in rap music. One might take such mockery not merely as comic fare, but as a rejection of the accepted prerequisites for hip hop credibility.

Instead of attempting to demonstrate their “realness,” Die Antwoord emphasize their strangeness: a self-proclaimed ninja in Pink Floyd shorts, a squeaking, shrieking “rrrich bitch” who borders between creepy and sexy, a DJ who makes “next level beats” on his “PC computer,” and a member whose only contribution is the showcasing of his rare, congenital abnormality. And they’re South African. As with punk precursors the New York Dolls, the absurdity of the performance aesthetic is part of the appeal.

If Die Antwoord are lampooning mainstream rap, they must be targeting not only the lyrics, but the sound. Consistently predictable bass drops, laughably trite melodies, flagrant rave-techno clichés, and cloying choruses are all employed unabashedly throughout Ten$ion. The utter lack of subtlety effectively mirrors the cheap vulgarity of the lyrics, while the undeviating, polished production imparts a certain gaudiness. The music is fashioned so as to provide the most base, immediate gratification, and succeeds in this aim. The result is a set of delightfully tasteless songs; they are physically compelling, intensely invigorating, and instantly infectious. After all, the lampooning of a musical genre is enjoyable, in great part, because it affords detractors of that genre a rare opportunity to indulge whatever individual features of such music satisfy them.

The disquieting question for many a Die Antwoord fan is: How much of this is a satire? In today’s indie culture, the line between irony and candidness is a blur. Perhaps, some of Die Antwoord’s appalling, crass lyrics about sex, drugs -and money are genuine. One song on the album provides a response: “So What?” This isn’t social consciousness rap; it’s nihilistic rap. It follows in the tradition of the Sex Pistols, not the Clash. Make what you want of it, but rest assured that Die Antwoord do not give a fuck.

Upon Interscope’s attempt to tone down Die Antwoord’s content, the rap group swiftly split from the label. They have reserved the right to be as offensive as they choose to be, and have shown no hesitation to exercise this right. The new record’s first single “Fok Julle Naaiers,” translates roughly to “Fuck You Fuckers.” Far more outrageous, however, is the following track “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez,” in which the eponymous DJ raps “I’ll fuck you in the ass… fuck you ‘til you like it, faggot.” Regarding these lyrics, Ninja has claimed that “DJ Hi-Tek is gay,” adding “Hi-Tek says ‘faggot’ all the time. He has taken that word and made it his bitch.” If this is indeed the case, “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez” is a conceptually groundbreaking track: a gay DJ rapping, in the most gangster manner conceivable, about explicit homosexual acts. Needless to say, Die Antwoord is a one-of-a-kind group.

Ten$ion retains the style and spirit of $O$, but is more hardcore and more focused. Whereas $O$ found the group dabbling in various hip hop sub-genres, nearly every song on Ten$ion is in Die Antwoord’s signature rave-rap style. The old school flavor of previous tracks such as “Wat Pomp” has been jettisoned. Yet, audible influences remain considerably varied. “So What” employs a Nate Dogg-esque hook and a central loop reminiscent of Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” On the interlude “Zefside Zol,” Ninja’s meter echoes Old Dirty Bastard’s flow in “Baby I Got Your Money,” while the underlying beat vaguely recalls “Grindin’” by Clipse. Occasionally, Ninja utters his rhymes in a nasal delivery, emulating the style of B Real. Songs such as “I Fink U Freeky” and “Baby’s On Fire” evoke the brief, power-raps in cheesy ‘90s dance hits.

Ninja is always on top of his game, showcasing his skills on the mic. Yo-Landi complements him in the high register, with her deranged, lubricious voice and razor-sharp raps. There are instances, particularly in “Fatty Boom Boom,” when her speedy, helium-timbre, vulturine teeter-tottering becomes maddening. However, there are fewer of these moments than on $O$.

The album’s first two tracks set the bar remarkably high, and achieve an intensity matched only in the record’s final quarter. Nevertheless, every track hits hard, and will set bodies in motion. Guaranteed both to amuse and to confuse, Ten$ion is a masterpiece of kitsch: an intently provocative, tongue-in-cheek rave-rap record, by a cryptic performance art group. And for what it is, it could hardly be better.