Artists can come at the creative process from different angles. One artist might focus on the form and performance itself, while another has something to say and has to choose a form for the message. It’s what distinguishes, say, a Run the Jewels from a 2Chainz. Run the Jewels stands for something and conveys it through performance, while one could counter that the magic of a performer like 2Chainz is in his affect and ability to play with the form in new ways — the content is incidental.
Sarah Violette, who smartly ditched her sorta-silly MC name Lady Essence about a year ago, has made the fascinating choice to use rap to convey her message. It’s fascinating because native Mainer Violette is a woman who's also every inch a literary-influenced writer and a feminist, three flavors that don’t often play together in contemporary hip-hop.
Violette’s message on UltraViolette is absolutely savage. In the first ten seconds of album opener “Gold Mine,” Violette tells us she’s got “automatic flow like I’m on the rag,” which is hilarious out of context, but when it shows up before the line, “It's molten lava, I owe you nada, no not a thang,” it becomes a straight-up claim on the destructive power of womanhood and her period as a metaphor for the shame that women are told we owe to the patriarchy. It’s high-level feminist thought made poetry.
The bulk of the seven songs on UltraViolette are about the demise of a relationship. Violette is hurt, angry and not yet ready to retreat from those feelings. She uses the space to go on the offense, attacking the ex-lover as a stand-in for much bigger frustrations. Her metaphors are rich with imagery both subtle (“and now I’m thinking that I’m fictional”) and heavy-handed (“you’re colder than a snow day”), and while these bits of lyric can stand alone, they gain weight and worth as they fold over one another, adding layers to Violette’s complex feelings and view of the world. It’s really quite deft, and it’s this literary style that really makes this album.
Intellectual rappers are nothing new, and while artists like Run the Jewels and Chance the Rapper have accelerated a modern renaissance period for this type of hip-hop, the genre’s very origins are in smart people battling oppression who have a way with words. So while UltraViolette feels timeless from this perspective, it’s the beats on the record and the cadence of the rapping that feel dated and hold her back.
Where's the line between “throwbacky” and “dated” anyway? The distinction reminds me of Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s famous line about porn: “I know it when I see it.” It feels like Violette and producer God.Damn.Chan. wanted the sparse feel of '80s hip-hop, focusing more on melody and keyboards than big beats and bangers. But the music itself lacks dynamic, as does Violette’s rapping. She seems to hover right around a comfortable BPM and a classic rhythmic pattern we’ve heard before, the iambic pentameter of rap. Rather than climbing and falling, we’re jogging across a flat field. The album could use a banger. It needs some moments that feel more playful, that musically and rhythmically match the power of Violette’s incredible mind.
Luckily, the album is kind of backloaded, and it picks up steam on the fourth of seven tracks, “Where I am.” The song is a short, plaintive lament about feeling disoriented, the most compelling on the album. God.Damn.Chan’s undulating bass gives it a welcome, unsettling creep factor. From there, vocalists Erin Ames and Renee Coolbrith, along with rapper/producer Spose, show up to run an assist on the last three tracks, which feel more bottom-heavy, gutsy and play a little more with rhythm and style.
Ultimately, it sounds like Violette is growing, and that is the heritage of being a true artist. Get this album for its words, but file it away when it’s time for your living room twerk parties.
Sarah Violette | UltraViolette | https://sarahviolettemusic.bandcamp.com/