It’s difficult to forget that Santi White was once in A&R and a wordsmith for hire: her music has always had a knowing and studious quality. As Santigold she has specialised in pop world exposés like L.E.S Artists and Freak like Me, and her music’s genre hopping style hints at her deep understanding of popular music. On her début, Santogold, these elements seemed like a fresh and vibrant approach but on her follow up, Master of My Make Believe, the formula had become a little tired and it lacked the punch of her earlier material.
Not one to rush things, White’s three albums to date have been released in four year increments. The cover of 99¢ suggests that, in those four years, her interests haven’t shifted a great deal. It depicts her plastic wrapped like a cheap doll, along with a bunch of random ephemera.“We have no illusion that we don’t live in this world where everything is packaged”, she recently commented. Some of the difficulty inherent in White’s music is that although she purports to be peeling back the layers and revealing the reality it can sometimes feel a little feigned – like an inside job.
Where this album does differ is in its tone. Master of My Make Believe tended towards the darker end of the spectrum, but from the opening Can’t Get Enough of My Myself’s deliciously jaunty takedown of the self-obsessed, 99¢ feels much lighter. As White said, “People’s lives, persona, everything, is deliberate, and mediated. It can be dark and haunting and tricky, and freak us out, but it can be also be silly and fun and we can learn to play with it.” And play she does. It’s most likely a general comment of the industry’s susceptibility to self obsession, but you can’t help but be reminded of a certain Kanye West and his increasingly bizarre self glorification: “I’m pretty major and I’ll say it out loud/living my life in a fantasy/living my life in my vanity.”
Alongside a sense of fun the album also benefits from a range of textures her sophomore recording lacked. She masterfully flits between the nagging, flickering beat of Big Boss to the sparse, bongo backed Before the Fire. And some of the most successful tracks are those where you can feel the influence of the 1980s – a musical period she holds dear. Rendezvous is such a highlight, and its 80s referencing bass driven groove and Donna Summer-ish vocals are persuasive. Run the Races’ production is intricately layered, building and becoming more urgent alongside White’s most emotive vocal to date. The highlight, Chasing Shadows, most closely resembles M.I.A, to whom she is so often compared. Its Hard Knock Life hip hop beat is complimented by revealing lyrics: “Now, why they eatin’ they idols up? Dammit I give my heart away so that they remember me”, and it also features the most engaging melody on the record.
There are a few songs on the album that miss the mark. Banshee, for example, although fitted up with a perfectly catchy hook, is lazily generic. And Walking In A Circle’s icy synths and effects laden vocals leave no lasting impression. But these are rare moments on an otherwise solid set of songs.
The intervening years since Santigold’s last record have left Santi White on good form – loosened up and delivering on some of the promises of her début. 99¢ is slick, soulful and full of the imaginative use of reference points that she is so accomplished at bending to her will. It’s by no means as immediate as Santogold, but its pleasures are plentiful if you give it the time it deserves.