Santigold 99¢

[Atlantic; 2016]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: Pure Pop for Now People
Others: Twin Shadow, Karen O, Rostam Batmanglij, Res

I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Americans enjoy eating meat, but barely anyone wants to think about how it’s made. Closer to the point, it often seems like the more people know about the means of production, the weaker their appetite gets. Meat is a metaphor — for pop music, but also for pop criticism itself. Am I reaching here? Santigold’s third commercial release, 99¢, aspires to be both a collection of pop songs and a critique of the entire pop music process, and as such, it’s poised between two nearly oppositional poles; Santigold wants you to know how her meat is made, but she wants you to purchase it, consume it, and cherish it anyhow; suffice to say, she doesn’t exactly succeed.

99¢ is an album that exists in the modern music industry’s negative space. Santigold is a major label artist, with a proven, albeit spotty, commercial record, and yet when I wonder for which demographic quadrants is this record intended, the only answers I can come up with are everyone and no one at all. Despite a history of questionable synergistic collaborations, 99¢ goes to show that Santigold’s Achilles’ heel is not her willingness to sell out, but, far more fatally, the ambivalence with which she does so.

It isn’t all a wash; the strongest material here oozes with good cheer, sly charm, and Scandinavian precision. “Can’t Get Enough of Myself’s” steel pan percussion and double-dutch rhythms are either earnest throwbacks to last decade’s Afro-poppy high-life-isms or tongue-in-cheek homages to Nick Lowe’s early records. “Banshee” scratches that same sweaty itch as “Timber” and “I Love It,” but in a way that feels too low-calorie, too calibrated for maximum Zumbability that it fails to hit the same imbecilic highs as those aforementioned hits. Speaking of Kesha, the last few songs on 99¢ — which evoke the period of time when new-wave, power-pop, and post-punk overlapped — are close analogues to those songs found toward the end of Warrior, her under-appreciated second album. These songs (“Who I Thought You Were,” in particular) sound more like The Cars (or late-era Strokes) than anything playing on modern commercial radio. And though I suspect these songs are calculated to sound more “live” than they probably are, there’s a physical tangibility to them that’s missing from much of what passes for pop today. Even “Who Be Lovin Me,” the song that most closely approximates contemporary pop aesthetics, cedes too much ground to iLoveMakonnen, who is himself an artist of questionable commercial appeal.

The problem that I’m writing my way around here is not that 99¢ is too calculated, but that the calculations just don’t add up. For every song that I replay, there’s another that I skip. Maybe it’s just me, but the sequencing between “Chasing Shadows” and “Walking in a Circle” — which sound, respectively, like a mush-mouthed cover of “Roar” and a colicky sibling to “Dark Horse” — confront me with the specter of Katy Perry, who embodies a certain ignominious truth: that pop music suffers more often from intelligence than stupidity.

And so here we are back at the factory, talking about how the meat is made. If it was good enough, I wouldn’t feel compelled to contemplate its means of production. Even after several weeks of contemplation, one question remains for me: Who is the audience for this album? I mean, I enjoy a good deal of this album, but I’m just a critic; if this music is aimed at me, then it’s even more wrongheaded than previously alleged. For all of Santigold’s explicit skepticism and self-deprecation, these songs are not disposable, but rather they will likely endure in a crumpled, detritus-like half-life on movie soundtracks, TV commercials, and algorithm-suggested YouTube sidebars. Even if I have little doubt that 99¢ will find an audience, I still don’t have a sense for who that audience is, and to be brutally honest, 99¢ makes me suspect that Santigold doesn’t quite either.

Links: Santigold - Atlantic

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