Who doesn't know her story by now? She doesn't like R & B, and made the excellent point that it was pretty racist to assume that she's supposed to. She wrote a song for Ashlee Simpson. She's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it guest on the GZA's Legend of the Liquid Swords. She knows M.I.A., likes M.I.A., understands why you might want to call her another M.I.A., but she likes the Pixies more than global conflict songs about Tamil Tigers. She opened for Coldplay, and she'll be dropping some stuff with the Beastie Boys before too long. She's successful.
The actual album she came out with? The solo thing, the thing that's up here, dancing in the top ten, beating out some notable workhorses? It's pretty successful as well. Whereas 2008 was a year full of major artists smashing into the wall and walking away with cartoon birds circling their head, it was also a year where an up and coming producer from Philadelphia could ditch the punk band she fronted for, make a debut album that mashed up all of her loves--the Pixies, the Clash, Blondie, dub, the Neptunes--and become a star. Unlike fellow "here's my influences" name droppers, Santogold went at it in with the oldest old school trick in the book: she wrote infectious, catchy pop songs, worked with some of the best producers she could find in her address book, including herself, and then she agreed to tour with a big enough band so that she could get the word out. She got herself a certified banger out of "L.E.S. Artistes", even though it's just another "I'm pretty awesome, here are some reasons why" type song.
Pop music isn't really my thing. I don't particularly know how to describe what it is that I like about it, or what it is that I look for when I listen to it. I can't figure the route that goes from "what is good" to "what is art" with this kind of stuff. The big stuff--Thriller, or "Like A Prayer", sure, I get that. But making it through what comes out, what's popular--I wouldn't be the best guide. Actually, I wouldn't even be a reliable guide. I can tell you that every time I hear the remix by of "You'll Find A Way" I visualize it as the perfect soundtrack to a gigantic Godzilla type monster tearing it's way through an urban landscape in slow motion. I can tell you shit like that, but that doesn't really help to describe the music--nor would some kind of made up "confession" of spontaneous dancing or waltzing to "Starstruck", even if it were true. (It's not, although I do think the portion where she continues to repeat "I. I. see. you. fade" was probably one of the sexiest things I heard this year, and I could see it meriting some kind of physical exertion.) At the same time, I couldn't begin to imagine there's a massive amount of poetic meaning behind a track like "Starstruck", or if there is, what could be discernible about lines like "Cause dream easy on your cigarette, through it." That doesn't lessen the impact of the song, at least not in these quarters, but it does speak to a layer of meaning that I probably am not best served to move past.
Of course, that's sort of the purpose of using an adjective like "infectious" to describe it. That's what Santogold's album is, for me, that's what all great pop music is. Regardless of inspiration, regardless of meaning, the best pop music is the kind that seeps it's way in through a pore, usually with a single like "L.E.S. Artistes," and then when it's set itself up, it introduces the brain to songs like "Unstoppable", which was just as good when you first heard it, but it wasn't until the seepage from "L.E.S." carved a way through that you start to catch how intense the water plopping bass is, how graphic and sexual the song sounds. Even songs that, upon first listen, seem less catchy--like when Trouble Andrew starts his low register mumbling in the background of "I'm A Lady"--eventually win themselves over, just because now, you're fully in love with this woman, this world of flawless construction that she's created, and the opportunity to experience more doesn't just become something you crave, but something that's almost necessary. Technically, it's going to be a triumph, that's a given: These are Smart People, they Can Make Smart Things. But it's the spirit, the soul of the thing, that's what makes it a success. It's not going to be something that can be dealt with analtyically--not anymore at least, because the requirement of analysis is going to be the province of those who escape conversion. After the transition is made, after the listener gives themselves over to this, this pop beast of seemingly minor proportions--one woman, some producers, songs about fun, being cool, standing strong--the chance to take it apart is past.
Santogold could turn out to be a fluke. That's totally possible. This genre--it's not a land of survivors, of getting-by-types. It's pop, and when pop turns back like a snake to bite the handler, shit is usually fatal, and what comes next is VH1 and an arrest record. But here, 2008: she was the flavor of the year, and she earned it. Twelve tracks, one was a remix.
-Tucker Stone, 2008