From the frozen landscape of the Midwest comes a magical voice that, at its angriest, sounds like a pack of hyenas gnawing at the carcass of injustice and, at its gentlest, sounds like an arthritic butterfly perched atop a flower just as heavy raindrops begin to fall from the sky. The voice comes from the mouth of Dessa, a rapper, singer and all-around goddess hailing from Minneapolis. She is a member of Doomtree, a collective based in Minneapolis and the purveyors of some of the greatest hip-hop rhymes still undiscovered by the greater United States populace.
Dessa put out her first EP in 2005. She followed it up with her debut album, A Badly Broken Code, in 2010, which received rave reviews and was voted the 20th best album of 2010 by the A.V. Club. On the album, Dessa rides a fine line between delicately sung phrases and propulsive rap bars spit atop very punky, very Doomtree beats, courtesy of Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger. This vocal duality makes the album precarious and irresistible, unnerving and soothing. Dessa’s lyrics tackle social issues in a manner far from preachy — something many independent hip-hop artists are often guilty of — and instead approaches topics through vivid imagery and densely-packed phrases of unabashed poeticism.
In 2011, she put out Castor, the Twin, featuring new arrangements of songs from her first two releases. This time, a backing band supported her vocals. The live instrumentation on the album complements the lush imagery and irresistible mien of Dessa’s rhymes. The album is a breath of organic hip-hop, with sounds made from wooden instruments and real people — no computers.
Dessa is currently touring to promote Castor, The Twin. She recently played five shows in two days at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Now she’s back in the frigid Midwest (“I hate the winters,” she said), and she will play the last show of her tour at the High Noon Saloon in Madison on Saturday. She’s currently traveling with a five-piece band, a couple members of which are multi-instrumentalists.
“I think this is the fullest live sound I’ve ever taken on the road,” Dessa said. “It’s got a lot of the aggression of a Doomtree set and a lot of the more delicate moments from the organic instrumentation that was featured on Castor, the Twin.”
Because it’s the last show on the tour, Dessa said the concert will have an air of celebration, noting her excitement about being close to home.
Dessa, a native Midwesterner, feels a special connection to Madison.
“I think Madison, for a long time, has been exceptionally supportive of Doomtree,” she said. “In a lot of ways, it feels like a home away from home. People know the material. People have been coming for a long time. So Madison feels like familiar territory, and we all sense that we’re just a few hours’ drive from our own city, which probably makes all of us that more excited to play.”
Dessa recently finished recording a new album that she will be releasing sometime in June. It features some aggressive rap songs in the Doomtree vein, but also songs that feature building harmonies, which she compares to Florence and the Machine’s vocals. The album features a blend of tracks produced by Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger, as well as instrumentation from the same ensemble that recorded on Castor, the Twin.
“I think this record has the best of both worlds,” she said.
Dessa will debut two to three new songs at Saturday’s show. Anyone interested in experiencing intelligence in the form of pure hip-hop cannot miss this show.
The density of Dessa’s lyrics requires full attention in order to be appreciated, but that isn’t difficult at all. Her music is a magnet for audience attention. It is music for provoking brilliant thoughts and for cracking a full smile when you understand what it all means.