Except for some looped whispers and singing on "Rhythm's Heart," Desdamona's third album is almost entirely without music—an a capella greatest-hits-plus for her pre-sold spoken-word audience. But that doesn't mean these "poems" aren't musical, or that they don't have wider appeal. With just the faintest whistle in her sibilants, a soulful swivel in her delivery, and a songful way with repetition, rhymes, and melodies, Desdamona could be a rapper, if she called herself that, or if she hadn't apparently felt shut out by hip hop at one point. (She suggests as much, humorously if vaguely, on "R.Hythm A.Nd P.Oetry," telling her story using the names and song titles of various rap legends).
So "spoken word" here just means the freedom to speed up or slow down, get loud or quiet, and address the form from within, as on "Kick One," "Up," and "This Is a Poetry Reading," where Desdamona demands more of poets than received political outrage: "I want to know the battle you fought just to realize that you are angry." She seems to know her genre is uncool by choice—its catharsis, if not free of irony or fantasy, then at least tending to value those things less than passionate personal expression. (Which is one reason slam poetry is the butt of hipster jokes, African American accent and all, while rap is not.)
Yet Inkling is a defense of naked directness in form and content. With sexy humor L.L. himself could love, Desdamona uses poetry as her metaphor on "Love at First Write (That Shit He Say)." And no one has more definitively put the alienation of female rap fans into words ("Don't Listen to the Lyrics") or identified the femininity that hip hop would deny in itself ("We Will Always B"). Those songs are reprised from previous albums, but seem purified here with voice alone—more what they're meant to be. And the newer lyrics are even better, as on "That's Me Inside," which could be a song for a willful son, a noncommittal boyfriend, or God describing humankind. "When he puts his arms around me, I can feel him fighting his heart," she raps. "It's killing me to know that he just can't let go of his sweet independence/So my prisoner of love for life he is sentenced." Maybe Desdamona's narrators are less reliable than she lets on.
DESDAMONA performs a CD-release show with Alicia Wiley and Ill Chemistry on SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21, at SAUCE SPIRITS AND SOUNDBAR; 612.822.6000.
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