Sontiago: Steel Yourself

Steel your face

Sontiago returns with a 13-song indictment

Let it be known that Sontiago is not for the squeamish. You might think you know her warm smile, easy embrace, and quick laugh. But she’ll cut you to the quick in an instant, and the girl comes hard. If you need proof, skip to track two, “Faith Not Fear,” on her second album, Steel Yourself (and you’d better). The Lin’s production, with accents from Boondocks and DJ Mayonnaise, opens laid-back and soulful, warmed by a central cello line, but the song turns in an instant, Sontiago’s classically crisp and emphatic delivery entering like a kick in the groin. Wait a second, isn’t this going to be a pretty album? Not hardly.

But then you realize everything’s pointed inward: “Believe me I don’t want to not life love/ But this is stronger than my will and beyond my control/ Beside myself/ Empty vessel, lost soul.”

It’s aggressively emotional and you can’t help but get caught up in it. Luckily, Dilly Dilly is on hand to ease the tension, or, as Sontiago puts it, “Give me something to take the edge off/ Make the panic tolerable.”

Dilly’s finishing verse is sultry and languid, finishing with the admonition, “Don’t forget to breathe.”

But don’t think all is introspection here. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the subject of the scorn Sontiago lays down in “Potential Paralysis.” The crackle of Xczircles’ production initiates a pervasive discomfort for the listener, emboldened by Sontiago’s lilting backing vocals that tear through the track, just a little bit off, crazed. “Don’t tell me about your misery,” Sontiago scolds amongst a series of non-rhyming couplets that flow just fine anyway, a series of statements that belong on a chalkboard somewhere. By the time she repeatedly wonders, “Did you know that I really needed you,” you’re completely defenseless against the body shots.

Sontiago is a deconstructionist’s nightmare. Forget the intentional fallacy; over the course of 5000+ words of liner notes, Portland first lady of hip hop tells you exactly what her songs mean.

At times, this can be disconcerting, like reading your sister’s diary. Even for someone like myself, who worked with Sontiago seven years, it can be too much information. Do we really need to know she used to cheat on all her boyfriends? That marriage gave her anxiety attacks? That writing one song with Dilly Dilly made her laugh to the point of peeing herself?

That’s up to you. But I’m more comfortable with the sentiment Sontiago expresses in “Hold On Me”: “I was disheartened to a point I hadn’t felt before/ This test presented itself in the ugliest of forms/ But once the words pass your lips they’re no longer your own/ You can trust the listener but you can’t always trust the phone.”

Sometimes, it’s as if she doesn’t trust the listener enough. “As an artist,” she writes to accompany “Old Orleans,” “I feel it’s my responsibility to bring what I find unacceptable to the table through song.” Which is all well and good, but in some way this strips for me some of the enjoyment of what is simply a phenomenal tune, with production by Pore that features a chilling snippet from Babe Ruth’s 1970s track, “We People Darker.” The keyboard lines are delicate and haunting, and the emotion drips from Sontiago’s voice straight from the open: “Those people who are dark and blue/ Are they going to hang around this town and let what others say come true?”

By the finish she’s just pounding, “Is that really where it’s at? Is that really what we’ve come to?” Implicitly, we all know that, yes, the woeful continuing neglect of New Orleans post-Katrina is really where our country is at. The Jena Six is really where our country is at. The racial inequality in our prisons is really where our country is at. What we will eventually come to? That’s a different question. I imagine we’d get further if more of our musical artists had as much to say as Sontiago does.

No, this is not a pretty album. It’s stark and sometimes prickly, but brightly lit.

The two pieces produced by Alias are maybe most indicative. His sound is a controlled chaos, a sound so dense it hits you from all sides at once, the vocals floating like a cork in the ocean. On “You Got Me, I Got You” (an interesting rejoinder of worldplay to hubby jdwalker’s Them Get You … Them Got You), Alias serves to emphasize the wonderful juxtaposition between Sontiago’s clipped phrases and Dilly Dilly’s sing-song, two deliveries that seem impossibly paired. The most indie-rock of the hip hop here, the tune circles around a call and response where the two voices intermingle and intertwine, sometimes providing clarity, often muddling everything you thought you knew about the track. [This tune doesn’t seem to be on the Bandcamp version of the album.]

This album isn’t safe, it isn’t like much you’ve heard before, and it can sometimes be uncomfortably real, but it’s so damn honest that every guest producer here brings their best and Sontiago never lets them down.