Genesis Owusu’s debut, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’, is Art with a capital ‘A’. He follows Kanye West and Solange Knowles in presenting an ambitious concept album with a cerebral theme and experimental sonics, defined by the auteur’s curation – rapping, singing and directing. ‘Smiling’ isn’t ‘Australian hip-hop’ as you know it: Genesis’ avant-funk pushes boundaries and amplifies individualism and free expression. Above all, the Canberran poetically twins his identity as an “outcast” with a desire to be defiantly outré.
Genesis has ventured far since he was a triple j Unearthed High finalist, dropping 2017’s jazz-rap ‘Cardrive’ EP. He’s worked with the Hiatus Kaiyote fold and Free Nationals’ Callum Connor – but on this album, he performs with a band formed around him by his OURNESS label co-founder, Andrew Klippel.
Klippel is himself a trailblazer. In the early ’90s, when Australian music was about grunge, he formed the Eurodance combo Euphoria, before launching the deeper AK Soul (who actually recorded with the iconic house diva Jocelyn Brown). For ‘Smiling’, the Sydneysider helped Genesis assemble his Black Dog Band with guitarist Kirin J Callinan, bassist Michael DiFrancesco (aka Touch Sensitive), and World Champion’s Julian Sudek on drums (Klippel plays keys). The album evolved out of live jam sessions led by Genesis.
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No wonder it sounds immediate. ‘Smiling’ is steeped in funk, but it’s closer to no wave, ‘Dirty Mind’-era Prince, or N.E.R.D. than any current hipster module. These grooves hit hard. Genesis wants to mosh.
The Ghanaian-Australian Genesis recognises the anti-Blackness encoded in English language. Pivotal to ‘Smiling’ is the phantom black dog often associated with British folklore – a creature later utilised as an allegory for depression by Winston Churchill. Genesis has also, he told NME, been called a ‘black dog’ as a racial slur.
Genesis reclaims the hound for his own narrative about demons. As a Black man navigating white spaces, he dissects the interplay between racism and his self-image and mental health. In the opening noise banger ‘On The Move!’ Genesis’ chants of “Black, Dogs on the move” are distorted and looped – the canine motif reoccurring in the propulsive ‘The Other Black Dog’, where Genesis copes with stress by finding escapes: “All my friends are hurting but we dance it off, laugh it off.”
Genesis approaches ‘Smiling’ as a catharsis – and, especially with his figurative writing, it can be occasionally unclear whom his missives are aimed at. Songs like the assertive, stomping lead single, ‘Don’t Need You’ are conversational yet candid, Genesis delivering barbed observations on a toxic relationship: “I always saw yo ass as a hindrance and you saw me as a target.” On the title-track, with wry spoken word, he admits to politely concealing his anxiety and depression when probed, realising that people seek assurances, not truths.
Singing partly in a Pharrell-style falsetto, Genesis ponders the trade-offs of fame, and material trappings, on the low-key single ‘Gold Chains’. Thematically similar to both his own ‘Cardrive’ track ‘Drive Slow’ and Denzel Curry’s ‘CLOUT COBAIN’, it captures a rising star astute to exploitative music industry machinations. ‘Smiling’ consistently surprises: superficially, ‘A Song About Fishing’ is breezy folk balladry – but Genesis conjures a Nick Cave-esque parable, chronicling an exhausting quest to catch fish with no success, only hope. It’s a bleak commentary on perseverance – and Genesis at his most imaginative.
With ‘Smiling With No Teeth’, Genesis Owusu has delivered a riveting album that underscores the power of self-knowledge, perspective and art – one that should be cranked loud.
- Release date: March 5
- Record label: Ourness/House Anxiety