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.

Spose: Dankonia

Welcome to Dankonia

Spose writes an album for Outkasts everywhere

Musical costumes are nothing new in Portland. Just ask the folks doing Clash of the Titans, who don a couple of new bands every week.

This Halloween, though, Spose wears a costume only to subsume it into the Preposterously Dank empire with the release of Dankonia, whereby Wells, Maine’s most famous rapper lays it down on top of production originally used by Outkast, though not only Stankonia.

Which gives him something of a headstart. Obviously, he’s got some great stuff to work with (he’ll tell you all about CeeLo’s contributions), and Spose is a lyricist and rapper who shines even when there isn’t much to work with at all.

Just don’t tell him he sounds like Coolio, as did his booking agent, Peter Schwartz, when Spose finally told him things weren’t working out. “Coolio,” out for just about a year as a preview of the second free album to be released by Spose this year thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, is everything he does well: tight rhymes, personally oriented and self-effacing, breaking down at the finish into what essentially becomes an intimate conversation.

“Three albums, two mixtapes, dense-ass verses and I sound like Coolio? C’mon.” No, not hardly.

Spose does his best over the 20 tracks here, actually, to sound like no one else, succeeding most when he’s residing squarely within the Maine we all know and love. “16 Counties”  is tremendous, incorporating not only a chorus of voices singing the Maine counties song, scratched and crabbed, but also more smart references to Maine political figures and celebrities than should reasonably fit into less than four minutes.

My favorite? “They didn’t think the kid he could flow/ Now I look like a man, like Olympia Snowe.” Or maybe: “Fuck Paul LePage / There’s no way he could be from where we’ve all been raised / He needs to shut his fast face and lick the balls for days / While I’m robbing every Marden’s until we all get paid.”

But even a very selective list of great rhymes from Dankonia would take up too much space to undertake. The record is a clinic in simile. If it weren’t that so many were on the order of “This is second coming, like redoing a porn take,” from “Twerking at a Funeral,” I’d recommend it for high school English. 

As it is, “Bombs over Syria” is a must-listen for just about anyone. With early electro-clash production, and a chorus that’s impossible to shake, this is Spose at his most dead serious even in a concise 1:20. “Cure for cancer, cure for AIDS, you know they got that shit locked away,” he clips, nearly breathless, “they’ll give it to you man, just not today / Pharmaceutical companies say you got to pay.”

And it’s hard to argue with this: “Every time they make a bomb you know they’re getting paid / Let me sell you fear, cuz money’s made when you’re afraid.”

Money, and how it’s made, is a recurring theme here. If you’re interested in Spose’s journey to major-label-land and back, there’s plenty to gnaw on, including “Elevators,” where he delineates the moment he found out he’d been dropped, while grabbing an iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, and “Broke as Me,” where you learn all you need to know about the cutthroat nature of the business: “They don’t give a fuck if eat lunch or tonight I die.”

Ouch.

But Spose never really comes close to wallowing. In fact, “Get Up Get Out” is the closest to the PDank ethos. A rallying cry to himself, it’s the Spose credo from “Can’t Get There from Here” – “doesn’t matter what your zip code is, just do work” – poked, prodded, and explored. “There’s a race going on and you’re out of it,” he drawls with disgust, “You’re lazy as fuck / You couldn’t pay me enough to live the life your live buddy / You got so much free time you make me think time isn’t money.”

It is, though, and no one knows it better. And no one is doing more to squeeze the most out of every minute than Spose. Thirty-four tracks released this year, every one of them demanding to be heard.