CD review: Dessa – A Badly Broken Code

Originally published on MadeLoudMarch 4, 2010

The evolution of a regional sound is a fascinating thing. It generally starts off as edgy and organic, but after a long enough run in the limelight, the elements and artists that once sounded so unique become familiar to the point of cliché. If the scene is to be saved, new artists need to push the template back toward the underground by stretching it in unexplored directions.

That’s where the Twin Cities hip-hop scene currently stands. After Atmosphere, Brother Ali and their Rhymesayers label mates won over a generation of college kids with their emotional appeals and literate flows, the local sound needed to make a move or risk drowning in its own sincerity. Enter Doomtree, an increasingly prominent Twin Cities hip-hop collective offering some refreshing mutations of the Rhymesayers DNA.

Dessa may be Doomtree’s most far-flung offshoot, a surprisingly soulful rapper/singer who brings a sharp mainstream sensibility to the sometimes oppressively indie Minneapolis sound. Her debut album kicks off with “Children’s Work,” an affecting, poetic story of sibling love (“I won’t pretend I don’t remember how unusual we were / The little mystic and his handler / All some children do is work”). If the opener plays to expectations, the haunting “Poor Atlas” takes the opposite tack. Dessa’s delicately layered a capella meditation on self-creation (“I’m building a body from blueprints in Braille / I’m building a body where our design has failed”) makes it clear she won’t be pigeonholed as a one-trick rapper.

A Badly Broken Code sometimes plays like a defiant statement from an artist eager to prove she can do it all right out of the gate. In less confident or competent hands, that might come off as desperation. Thankfully, Dessa’s honey-smooth voice and lyrical prowess are up to the challenge. She slides effortlessly from the bluesy hip-hop bounce of “Dutch” to the straight-up R&B crooning of “Go Home” to the slow-burning rage of “Seamstress.” If this album ever ends up being the subject of one of those “All-Star Tribute to…” compilations, the producers will have to cull artists from a wide range of genres to really do it justice.

Minneapolis rap is sometimes accused of letting its emo tendencies drift dangerously close to bathos, but Dessa’s superb songwriting keeps her clear of that pitfall. Though she handles pain and introspection as well as any rapper working today, she’s not afraid to cut loose now and then. The raucous “The Bullpen” tells us to “forget the bull in the china shop / There’s a china doll in the bullpen.” The indie rap community would do well to heed those words.

Recommended Tracks: “The Bullpen,” “Children’s Work,” “Seamstress”

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