Hybrid Review: Santigold at 9:30 Club / Master of My Make Believe

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Santigold absolutely rocked D.C.’s 9:30 Club last week with a performance that had all of the creative zeal you might expect of an artist gaining a reputation for energetic and genre-melding idiosyncracy. Clearly a rising star, she is settling into her rapidly increasing renown with grace and unique style.

The show began with an electrifying performance of the boastful song “Go!” from her new album, Master of My Make Believe. Immediately, the audience buckled-in for a hair-raising ride through her past two albums as well as the bonus of some rare gems.

You can’t talk about a Santigold performance without mentioning her dancers. Matching her eclectic music, her dancing duo helped fire up the crowd with a unique mix of dance styles and moves accompanied with by expressionless faces reminiscent of Public Enemy’s stage show (apparently Santigold does some of the choreography herself). The kinetic crowd was not so stoic, however, dancing for her entire hour-plus performance. And as is her custom, she invited the audience up on stage to dance with her and her dancers with a helpful warning that getting too close to her dance duo might result in an inadvertent strike of one of the dancers’ legs to their face. Forewarned was fair-warned, and thankfully she also made clear that they were there as entertainers, now, not to take photos of themselves. Amidst the cacophony that followed, her dancers did not miss a beat even as the stage swelled with revelry.

Santigold remained engaged with the audience throughout the performance, not only singing to them, but also connecting to individual people in the audience and even modifying her set list to take the performance in whatever direction she deemed organic. Her set list was as unpredictable, as you might imagine, as were the nuances subtly worked into the performance. At one point she paused and walked to the side of the stage, where her dancers placed a gold streamer “cape” on her shoulders, reminiscent of James Brown’s famous cape routine. At another point, two people in a horse costume spent time galloping around the stage, something she has worked into most of her recent performances. Whether this is a cultural reference or just a creative idea to distract and entertain the crowd during a costume change, the unexpectedness and the spectacle serves to keep things interesting.

And that’s what’s so exciting about Santigold.  Having had the good fortune to see Santigold in several venues over the past few years – Lollapalooza in 2009 and Coachella earlier this year – it is clear that her performances are always fresh, always unique and always tailored to her audience, whether on a huge festival stage or at more intimate venues such as 9:30 Club. Her artistry is incredible, weaving cues from multiple genres of music and dance forms into her performances remaining attentive to her fans throughout. This did not go unnoticed; the crowd welcomed her in a boisterous fashion that is rarely seen with “up and coming artists,” even Internet buzzworthy artists like Santigold that have been around for years.

Santigold’s tour coincides with the recent release of her aforementioned album, Master of My Make Believe. While not exactly a sophomore effort, (she has collaborated with many artists including The Beastie Boys, the masterful Top Ranking collaboration with Diplo, with Jay-Z on the Notorious soundtrack, and with M.I.A.), this album is a departure from her previous full-length album, the self-titled Santogold.  (Yes, she was forced to change her name when a pawn shop owner got litigious). While the first album offered up a similar eclecticism, it introduced a style that has further evolved in Master of My Make Believe. Through that album she showed her musical range from the pop hit, “Lights Out” to the hip-hop and reggae-influenced “Shove It.” Master of My Make Believe incorporates each of those styles while adding even more.

Those styles are heard in every song and their seamless integration is amazingly well-executed.  While roughly four years old, the sound of her first album remains modern, fresh and unique. But when compared with her current project, one can immediately hear how her unique voice and creativity have progressed. Santigold’s music has been described as pop, but it’s tough to confine it so narrowly because her style is so creative and eclectic that a relevant genre doesn’t yet exist. She seamlessly and expertly weaves pop, reggae, hip-hop, R&B and African music into a unique whole. Perhaps her style might be better characterized as Afroreggaehippop. Try saying that fast a few times, and you’ll understand the complexity of her pastiche.

Much like her live performances, Master of My Make Believe takes listeners on an amazing ride. She jolts listeners to attention with “Go!” with its sinister beat and boastful lyrics identifying her as a talent with whom you do not want to tangle – another hip-hop throwback. Then the album moves into the single “Disparate Youth,” a melodious song featuring a driving baseline, snappy synth and an inspirational message – that we all should strive for a life worthy of the fight. It makes sense that as the lead single; it represents Santigold’s depth, creativity and connection with a world outside of the typical music industry traps.

“God from the Machine,” with its a guitar-lick-laden bass-line continues the inspirational message from the previous track.  With militaristic snare drums, the message is that you need to gird for battle if you want to reach your goals.  From those spiritual and inspiration-laden tracks she takes the listener into the depths.  As it turns out, realization of one’s goals are accompanied by a number of pitfalls.

Santi shares another important idea with the poppy track, “The Keepers,” where she sends the clear message that if America doesn’t wake up and fix our shit, we will falter both as a country and a people. This song exemplifies why she is both an endearing and potentially enduring artist; she writes catchy tunes about important issues with a depth and intelligence rarely found in pop music.  Then there’s “Look at Those Hoes,”  another boastful hip hop track where she lets her competition know they simply can’t hang with Santigold – and she’s right.

Each song is unique and wonderful. Anyone willing to really listen will hear her story in this album, the story of an artist’s experiences in reaching the heights of her career and her life experiences, which are seemingly as eclectic as her music. This woman has so much creativity coursing through her veins that it seems assured that her heights have yet to be reached. Clearly, there is no way we have yet heard all she has to give.

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