Ninja’s got a new tattoo: “TEN$ION” right across his stomach to celebrate their new album, matching the colossal “$0$” down his back and the crude lyrics scrawled all down his neck and arms. If it were anyone else I’d be dumbfounded and nonplussed – but I’ve reviewed Die Antwoord before. You can’t question Ninja’s audacity or confidence; this is the man that rapped about scoring a record deal “in the overseas” long before he had one, after all. As a matter of fact, that deal fell through: Interscope Records apparently couldn’t handle the South African duo’s (trio’s?) radical and offensive sense of humour, so Ninja did what any responsible recording artist would do: he dumped one of the largest recording companies on earth and founded his own Zef Recordz. What results is a natural sequel to their debut album, musically updated and gleefully unhinged as ever.
First, a tangential history lesson: I once called Die Antwoord the worst rap-thing I’d ever heard, and there’s a part of me that won’t back away from that assessment. The price of entry to the Zef Side is high as ever, and an exposure to – and lyrical exploration of – $0$ is a must if you’re hoping to find Ten$Ion anything more than goofy, self-indulgent nonsense. Die Antwoord is very very weird (and fun!), yes, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Watkin Tudor Jones has premised his career on radical self-invention (go look up MaxNormal.TV, who once proclaimed himself “Die fokken antwoord”), and his cohort/wife Yo-Landi Vi$$er is no small accessory to his success. Their dedication is nothing to scoff at – name another rapper whose alter-ego is tatted as heavily as Ninja – and the artistic result is a group whose laugh-track is buried just deeply enough to mystify first-time listeners. Die Antwoord’s tri-lingual gangster rap never breaks character, keeping a straight face even when Ninja’s measure of success is being “all up on the interwebs… WORLDWIDE” (and Yo-Landi’s “Rich Bitch” certification is her ability to choose when and when not to answer her phone). In an interior sense they’re completely absurd, and outwardly dead serious – crystallizing their Zef aesthetic into a buffoonish South African kaleidoscope of Western rap imagery, ghetto-fabulous with zero interest in reflecting on how often their machismo ‘accidentally’ undercuts itself. There’s nothing like it out there.
So they’re a satire, and a very dedicated one. That shock value carried their first album to surprising success, and like any shock-group they’ve got to one-up themselves now that we’re used to their antics. Incredibly, they’re up to the task. DJ Hi-Tek might not exist, but his production has sure as heck improved. $0$ was rave-influenced hip-hop, with more than a touch of house (and even rock) – Tens$Ion drops straight into the club, with Ninja smashing through opener “Never Le Nkemise 1” over a dubstep/rave beat (ravestep?), that in turn drops right out of what sounds like a folk choir. He’s completely comfortable as Ninja now, and you can hear it: he shouts and whines, he mimes EMF and name-drops Neill Blomkamp, he’s “gangster #1” and can afford a gun now (or claims to). As a group that subsists entirely on musical energy, it’s their ideal opener; if nothing else, dubstep whips up a crowd real nicely (and is just played out enough to merit Die Antwoord’s attention). It’s more or less rave beats from there on, and Die Antwoord profits greatly from the narrowed musical direction. For those worried that fan-favourite Yo-Landi would be downplayed, she dominates single “I Fink U Freeky” with a rap style that’s enormously improved in the two years since $0$: like Ninja, she’s noticeably more confident, alternately shouting and cooing and meowing(?) her way through the track – whenever she isn’t deadpanning the chorus. Rest assured, she’s still got a voice like a demented care-bear or a clubbing chipmunk (yes it’s real, and she owns “Fatty Boom Boom”), and it’s still the perfect accompaniment to Ninja’s nasal, staccato flow. Yo-landi’s successfully gone from seeming like an accessory on $0$ to co-conspirator on Ten$Ion, and it couldn’t be a more entertaining effort for it. They’re both still rapping in a head-spinning combo of English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, and they still sound like nothing you’ve heard before – only now the effort’s more balanced. Remarkably, Die Antwoord’s matured.
That said, we know Die Antwoord by now, and any band driven by the cult of personality needs to develop those personalities in order to succeed. Their trademark humour is still in check (check their videos), though downplayed from the days of Ninja bragging about (failing at) scoring with girls and “Beat Boy”’s 8-minute odyssey into supremely hallucinogenic, hermaphroditic sex (lyrics here). Lyrically, Ten$Ion’s more focused, and only suffers slightly for it; a lot of this album actually is gangster rap, inevitably tempered by Die Antwoord’s general absurdity (which never fails to disarm their imagery). New for Ten$Ion is an increased interest in pop-culture references that really sets it apart from its predecessor: everyone from Ludacris to Mike Tyson to Die Hard’s John McClane gets a chance at the wheel here, and it’s hilarious to hear Ninja and Yo-Landi turn western rap culture on its head, time after time. Of course they’re playing around when Ninja says he only likes girls that “let [him] stick [his] penis in their bum” or his wife Yo-Landi Vi$$er tells you she’s “so famous that the cops won’t touch [her]” – though he’s totally not lying when he tells of getting caught watching porn on his phone (by his mom). Even the three straightforward hype-tracks manage to keep things interesting with “Hey Sexys”’s brief political angle and heavy percussive beat, “Baby’s On Fire”’s references to Mr. T and Apocalypse Now, and “U Make A Ninja Wanna Fuck”’s general sarcasm (and thematic response to “She Makes Me A Killer”). Sure, at least one of the two skits is intensely annoying and DJ Hi-Tek’s solo track is violently homophobic (and constructed entirely out of Mike Tyson quotations), but when you hit “So What?” and hear Die Antwoord rap about their collective kid, Sixteen Jones, it’s hard not to feel a little emotional twinge – and that’s an impressive feat for the band that once taunted you with “Jou ma se poes in a fishpaste jar” (you don’t want to know).
So what can we make of sophomore Die Antwoord? Ten$Ion’s a lot more straightforward than its predecessor, the humour is less overt, and at 38 minutes it flirts with over-brevity. That said, it’s more focused musically: the production is as tight as their manic aesthetic will allow, Ninja and Yo-Landi have noticeably progressed as rappers (and actors), and they’ve finally come to the realization that no one wants two 8-minute Zef ballads in a row. For all that, they’ve retained their utterly unique stage presence, and channelled their newfound artistic independence into capping the album with the aggressive “Fok Julle Naaiers” and the absurdly offensive “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez”. Is this a sign that Die Antwoord’s going to stretch their weirdness to an even darker, tenuously-acceptable extent on their next album? I sure hope so. For now we have the thoroughly comfortable and technically improved sugar-rush of Ten$Ion to tide us over.
Waddy Jones and Yolandi Visser are committed to this project, and that takes an incredible amount of nerve. I don’t know if they’ve pushed Die Antwoord as far as it can go, but I can’t help but root for their queer, underdog sort of success. This stuff is as novel as they come, so as they say on “Fatty Boom Boom”:
“If you haven’t got it by now…” “Then you nevah gonna get it”
Published right here, January 2012
A moment with Transylvanilla:
That video up there, ‘Fok Julle Naaiers’, has some pretty nasty language in it. It’s got some pretty homophobic, rape-culture proliferating language in it. DJ Hi-Tek’s shocking monologue at the end of that video (isolated on Ten$Ion as the eminently skippable “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez”) is taken, almost verbatim, from a very famous Mike Tyson outburst you can view here. Absolutely there’s an artistic statement being made, likely there is also a comedic statement being made regarding masculinity; I’m not here to critique or resolve those artistic issues – I’m here to tell you how I think the album sounds. Die Antwoord, artistically, has every right to make these sorts of statements, and I’m not under the impression that they’re in malicious bad taste (actively promoting bigotry). I’m also not under the impression that Hi-Tek actually exists. But that’s neither here nor there.
The point is, Transylvanilla (that is, Me) unequivocally supports Gay Rights, Women’s Rights, and other generally Common Sense Good Things. The art I inspect here won’t always support those same aims, and I’ll try to let you know when I catch a particularly egregious example (thankfully, bigotry has a way of dragging quality down with it). That said, I won’t stop looking into it, or anything else – that’s what I’m here for.
Just thought you should know.