In Genesis Owusu’s world, God looks kindlier on the roach than the black dog. The six-legged insect is closer to nirvana, albeit still a long way off. On Owusu’s debut album, Smiling With No Teeth, black dogs had two meanings: The first as a reference to what has become a symbol in Australia for mental-health struggles or depression, and the second for darker-skinned people given subhuman status by their lighter-skinned peers.
Why the detested cockroach for his second album? Nocturnal pest. Winged, but can’t really fly. Survivor. As the Cold War-era saying went, roaches would be the only things left after a nuclear holocaust. (And Twinkies, but I digress.) Unless they sting or have venom, bugs generally don’t get elevated to mascot status. But if your experience is of being endlessly hated, baited, trapped, stomped on, and having bright lights shone in your face, maybe the roach is for you, too.
Owusu happens to be the peacock of cockroaches. For someone so prone to introspection, he has the vibrancy and kineticism of a Japanese game show. Among Struggler’s few flaws, the candid lyrics and thematic repetition occasionally lacks variation and this is amplified in comparison to the music. The media often applies the “Prince-like” tag to any Black artist who practices minimalist funk, but for Owusu – well, there’s funk, too – it’s a talent and IQ for both the ambition to express oneself with so many different sounds and the ability to always sound like Genesis Owusu. If he covered AC/DC’s “Back In Black”, it would become his a la Jimi Hendrix and “All Along The Watchtower”.
While Smiling spreaded itself thin at times, Owusu sounds more settled on Struggler and contorts his voice less. He generally shifts between falsetto and the jab-jab-punch flow that he used so impressively on “Black Dogs!” – on “The Roach” it even recalls Tom Waits’ “Hell Broke Luce”. Eighth-note synth melodies and continuous use of electric guitars push a rock agenda, but what separates the new album from its predecessor is that Owusu has found God, or, at least he has found God doesn’t like him.
The first half of the album deals with the subject directly: “Better run / There’s a God and He’s coming for me,” goes opener “Leaving The Light”, a song that is pursued by a relentless synth bass and a pace where a jog becomes a run. “Old Man” meets at an intersection of TV On The Radio and Tears For Fears if you can imagine Roland Orzabal intoning “There’s an old man waiting in the sky / just to fuck my life up.” The Isley Brothers-indebted slow jam “See Ya There” coos, “You’re going to hell / I’ll see you there / And we could never do nothin’ about it.”
To be clear, it’s not a rejection of faith – though it implies that Owusu sees God and depression as the same. When he sings “I won’t die on my knees” he’s wilfully insubordinate, but the only other option is to crumble. So he is reborn as a “roach, a freakboy” and the red stripe he paints on his newly-shaven head is a scarlet letter for his maker’s poor craftsmanship.
Struggler’s second half dedicates itself to exploring how to sustain an existence without the Almighty’s help. Owusu’s appearance intermittently resembles a Burning Man extra, but his new covenant refuses Satan as well. On “That’s Life (A Swamp)” he begins “Pull my sins away, I know it ain’t right” to a shimmering, Pharrell-meets-Daft Punk thump. It then see-saws into the taut, Bloc Party-style punk of “Stay Blessed”, the breakbeat-interrupted West African funk of “What Comes Will Come,” and, maybe ironically, the gospel-y soul of “Stuck To The Fan”. Owusu knows that God loves a joke.