You remember that ugly Beck vs. Beyoncé debate back in 2014? You know, where 'real music lovers' argued that the former was more of a 'real musician' because he played instruments and only worked with one producer? Right. You try telling Santi White that - with two kaleidoscopic albums and a wide spectrum of collabs under her belt, AND some production chops of her own, she’s made a name for herself by juggling through soundscapes. Granted, that name – Santigold, of course – has been plagued with M.I.A comparisons, but anyone with ears and some patience can tease out the difference between White’s tie-dye fusion and M.I.A’s paintball splatter. That’s even clearer on this go-round – for 99 Cents is the brightest and biggest album she’s ever made, a complex confection sold with a knowing wink.
Now, the packaged junk on the cover epitomises the loose concept of the album – that we live in a world where everything can be bought and sold, including our identities. But, to be honest, that falls apart quickly after the first two tracks, and we probably won’t discuss it again in the course of this review.
More discernible is the definitive shift away from the pulsing post-punk metallics of Master of My Make-Believe to brighter, flashier hues. Lead single 'Can’t Get Enough of Myself' dazzles with its shameless sunshine, all breezy flutes and cheesy synths and larger-than-life drum rolls; the hand-clap breakdown in the middle only cinches the tune’s soda pop appeal. White’s own acrobatics really make these big numbers shine, though. 'Banshee' erupts with impish glee, echoing Charli XCX in the colossal "STEP OFF THE EDGE" refrain, yet she coasts through it without the bratty mean streak. And her solid delivery on 'All I Got' balances out the saccharine, Sixties girl group vibe. As she says on 'Can’t Get…', "I got so much flavour, put me on a buffet”. Cheeky, but true.
Indeed, Santigold offers some meaty main dishes alongside the dainty desserts. Something lonely pervades the downtempo 'Chasing Shadows', as White muses on her fame, what she could do differently, what she’s done right. The sparse 'Before the Fire' simmers with an urgency, of the sort that TV On The Radio made a splash with on their first album. And then there’s the gorgeous 'Run the Races' – which, when taken out of context, sounds and feels as if White’s about to abandon everyone she knows to pursue some destiny: “it may not be safe / but I can’t hide from what will come”. Turns out, this sparkling ballad was written as White was nine months pregnant; in THAT light, lines like “It may not be made for me” leave her vulnerable in a way that we haven’t seen her before.
White commands this album so completely, the listener could easily forget how truly talented she is – until 'Who Be Lovin Me'. Oh, ILOVEMANOKKEN. His refrain fits the whole people-as-commodities theme, but the way he plods through his raps sullies the global Don Juan character he paints himself to be. When White comes in for the reparté, she dances circles around the dude. In all fairness, the two didn’t record at the same time, so perhaps ILOVE didn’t know he was stepping in something waaaaaaaay outside his league before he signed on.
Regardless, 'Who Be Lovin Me' leaves the only sour taste on the album. 'Rendezvous Girl' and closer 'Who I Thought You Were' bring back the alt rock throb of Santigold’s previous albums – and once again, her leaps and bounds set her miles apart from many legit rock outfits. Nothing outclasses “Outside the War”, though, with its snarling guitar, Siouxsie-like howls, and the waste away moan from many knuckle-dragging zombie versions of her self. It’s not gothic per say, but it’s definitely no lemon drop confection, either. Neither is “Who I Thought You Were”, which rounds the album out nicely with an upbeat, Cars-like anthem on how stardom changes some people for the worse.
99 Cents doesn’t exactly deliver the discussion on commodity and the self promised on the cover. But Santigold have assembled a fine package, one which showcases White and her undeniable swagger. Eat that, Beck.
8Lee Adcock's Score