Music Review: Dessa, 'A Badly Broken Code' The Minneapolis rapper known as Dessa doesn't have a typical hip-hop profile, but her talent more than compensates. Maggie Wander graduated from college at 20 and then worked as a medical writer. She's an outspoken fan of Jeff Buckley. And, under the name Dessa, Wander just released a terrific hip-hop album called A Badly Broken Code.


Music Reviews

Dessa: Breaking The Rules Of Rap

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Minneapolis-based rapper Dessa is, A, white and, B, a woman. That puts her in the minority in the hip-hop world. Our music critic Robert Christgau says she easily holds her own.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Twenty-eight-year-old Maggie Wander graduated from the University of Minnesota at 20 and then worked as a medical writer. She co-founded an a cappella group called the Boy Sopranos. She's an outspoken fan of Jeff Buckley and the kind of arty alt rockers he inspired. And under the name Dessa, Maggie Wander just released a terrific hip-hop album. It's called "A Badly Broken Code."

(Soundbite of music)

DESSA (Rapper): (Rapping) My father was a paper plane. My mother was a wind-swept train. My little brother's nearly twice my age. He taught me how to meditate. I taught him how to read. I grew up with a book in my bed. I got these dark circles before I turned 10, heard my mother with her friends worry it was something she did to get such a serious kid. But I've learned how to paint my face, how to earn my keep, how to clean my kill. Some nights I still can't sleep, (unintelligible).

CHRISTGAU: Dessa is the only woman in Doomtree, a predominantly white and punk-identified Minneapolis hip-hop collective whose best-known member is the African-American rapper POS. I'm here to tell you that Dessa smokes POS, even though she breaks all the rap rules, not because she breaks the rules. Her clean timbre and stated preference for melody over rhythm don't bode well. But as it happens, Dessa is a fluent lyricist who really knows how to propel words with beats.

(Soundbite of song, "Matches to Paper Dolls")

DESSA: (Rapping) We've been lovers and strangers and friends who get angry, made mistakes and amends and brief moments of magic. We forgive and forget and give into attraction. This whole thing depends on amnesia and madness. And I'd be leaving for good. I'd be looking for better, but I got this broken habit I keep gluing back together. The fever to fly feathers, the fever defies measure, and (unintelligible) won't venture where the moth won't get it. If you're asking I can't say no. Just one more chapter of this book closed.

CHRISTGAU: In a time when so many lyricists purvey impenetrable poetry, Dessa is generally very clear, which isn't to say she avoids metaphor or feels obliged to nail down every detail. She recalls an old-fashioned quality singer-songwriter like Joni Mitchell or Rosanne Cash, just one who's decided that hip-hop beats, tolerantly and inclusively conceived, are a modern lyricist's most effective delivery system.

My favorite track on "A Badly Broken Code" is a slow one I passed by at first, "Go Home," in which she sends a married male friend away before things get out of hand. I'd love to hear Rosanne Cash's arrangement.

(Soundbite of song, "Go Home")

DESSA: (Singing) Go home to her while you still can. It's much too late now for drafting up new plans. And your woman's got an honest man, I always thought. So don't do nothing now to make you take it back.

CHRISTGAU: Uncommonly for hip-hop, most of Dessa's songs are about relationships and not just romantic ones. Family and friends also receive her detailed and insightful attention. Because she's a hip-hopper, she reserves special feelings for her musical buddies in Doomtree. There's no love like crew love, she singsongs. But because she's a hip-hopper, she's also not above bragging a little. She's got a right.

(Soundbite of music)

DESSA: (Rapping) Forget the bull in the China shop, there's a China doll in the bullpen. Walk with a (unintelligible) in the pit (unintelligible) swinging at the pitch (unintelligible) in life.

NORRIS: The new album from Dessa is called "A Badly Broken Code." Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.

(Soundbite of music)

DESSA: (Rapping) Why am I the only one who's acting like a gentleman? (Unintelligible) that's style, not a thing to say (unintelligible).

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