Dessa – Breaking codes, breaking barriers

A multi-talented hip-hop artist well worth a listen

Margret Wander, better known by her stage name Dessa, is a rapper, spoken word artist, lyricist and singer from Minneapolis. She is best known as a member (and the only female one) of the hip-hop collective Doomtree. The first time I heard Dessa I knew it was a no-going-back moment, and I knew I was hooked.

Her story, as you would probably expect from listening to an album as epic as A Badly Broken Code (her first full-length, released in 2010), is not a conventional one. As one reviewer said, “If your average band’s story is a straight line, then hers is a Cartesian coordinate system.” A timeline would be near impossible to recreate but a sampling of her resume would look something like this: Technical writer for a medical manufacturer, published poet, fiction writer, non-fiction writer, slam poetry winner, hip-hop emcee, soul singer, music teacher, and philosophy graduate.

I wouldn’t be surprised if she could also juggle fire and spin silk, as well as spit rhymes, on the side.

Dessa’s vocals are effortlessly beautiful and her language is fluent: she’s a fabulous rapper with the heart of a true raconteur (she charmed me when I read in an interview that the biggest influence on her art was “her mother’s insistence that her children speak well”), but she blends into other genres like she’s never been told that those lines exist. Her music combines the best of all the worlds she occupies (the songs on A Badly Broken Code feature production from Paper Tiger, Lazerbeak, Cecil Otter, MK Larada, and Big Jess) and the tracks range from tender acapella gems to R&B harmonies to hard-hitting rap beats. It’s all there, and it’s all lovely.

Dessa's "A Badly Broken Code"
Dessa’s “A Badly Broken Code”

Songs like Children’s Work and Dixon’s Girl are among the strongest on the album because they showcase the best of all her talents and leave no doubt that Dessa is both a phenomenal singer and a spoken-word acrobat. When she sings, “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/ The past rolls back/ I can see us still/ Children aren’t as simple as we’d like to think,” you know she’s telling a real story, and that it’s personal. It’s a not all heartbreak and damage in here though. On The Bullpen she shows her swagger and grit (and humour, booya), when she raps, “It’s been assumed I’m soft or irrelevant because I refuse to downplay my intelligence/ But in a room of thugs and rap veterans, why am I the only one who’s acting like a gentleman?”

Of the 15 tracks here she’s at her best when she mixes her credentials to create a sound that is both familiar but novel. It’s synthesis at its best, and at its most irreverent as well – an accusation that Dessa probably wouldn’t shy away from given her proclivity towards eclecticism. She truly is a Jack of All Trades, but she manages to master them all, too. A Badly Broken Code was released three years ago but if you’re like me, always in search of ‘new’ music no matter how old it is, then you’ll want to check out Dessa. You can stream, or buy, her music at Bandcamp, here.

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