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Death Becomes Her Bob Cluness , March 4th, 2019 09:54

For her debut album proper on Hyperdub, Angel-Ho flips the lens on pop's appropriative tendencies, finds Bob Cluness

When the NON music collective was founded by the artists Angel-Ho, Chino Amobi and Nkisi back in 2015, one of their main aims was the use of sound to highlight the various social and political issues that numerous diasporas across the world have to face with on a daily basis. The three founders of NON and many of the artists they have collaborated with and released all share some form of intercultural experience, either as living as a minority in an adopted country of having to straddle multiple forms of cultural knowledge and heritage. In an early interview, Angel-Ho argued for the need to collaborate, to spread out, make connections and find affinities with people in similar situations. “This need to collaborate is really about understanding people from where they come from, and also learning more about yourself through them. That's something I hope people take away from our engagement with each other. People need to travel the world, people need to see how other people live; we can't keep staying in our bubbles.”

Fast forward four years, and Angel-Ho has realised this praxis in her full-length debut, Death Becomes Her, an album of transformation, an exploration of coming out as a trans woman. Her earlier releases, such as the EPs Ascension (2015), EMANCIPATION (2016), and Red Devil (2017) and mixtapes such as Death Drop From Heaven (2015), were disruptive, exhilarating, sometimes bewildering collisions of abrasive sounds, aggressive rhythms and clashing samples forced together under pressure cooker production. But since those early releases, she has been working on honing and refining her musical sensibilities. Many of the tracks uploaded onto her Soundcloud, for example, have been inspired by, or were re-workings, of contemporary pop tunes. The brashness and noise was still there, but they contained a sense of glamour and growth in her production skills.

It makes sense that Angel-Ho has embraced the idea of exploring her pop side in Death Becomes Her, for where else in the past two decades can you find such maximalist intensities and bold, piercing sonics than in the world of contemporary pop? Today, most pop, with its auto-tune sheen, pre-programmed soars, trap/ratchet beats and globalist post-genre/identity/racial tendencies, all played on a landscape of empty nihilism and hedonistic drift, is often more self-aware and deconstructionist than most so-called ‘experimental’ genres.

What is interesting here is how Angel-Ho approaches pop in Death Becomes Her, where she takes the tendencies that are inherent in most Western pop music these, and flips the lens, viewing such dynamics from a diasporic viewpoint and rerouting the flows and networks to make it look as if the South African townships were the dream factory of pop innovation and dynamism, looking to the west for the new and exotic – and not the other way around. You can hear such queering and appropriation of western pop motifs and values in moments such as on ‘Live’ where she comes out with Lumidee-style “uh-oh” s, and at one point even starts up a rendition of ‘Staying Alive’.

For Death Becomes Her, Angel-Ho has stayed true to her commitment to collaboration, enlisting a group of artists and producers, all of whom share and understand her diasporic and intercultural experiences and influences. Production duties are shared with French producer Nunu, South African producer Baby Caramel, Asmara Maroof from Nguzunguzu, UK-born producer Gaika, while Filipino-American rapper K-Rizz and fellow Cape Town MC’s K-$ and Qweezy all have guest spots.

This collaborative ethos really comes together on standout track ‘Drama', a straight up honest to God pop banger. With production from Asmara, various bleeps and bloops pop and bubble over a punchy beat, its minimal structure giving priority to the brash, ever-so-slightly-off, big Diva energy of Angel-Ho’s vocals and K-Rizz raps. ‘Baby Tee’ meanwhile queers the R&B love song, as they open to each other in a ballad of trans love, and all the embodied messiness and ambiguity that it entails.

As a pop album, Death Becomes Her is very much in the tradition of the likes of Björk and Missy Elliot, two artists she has cited as influences for the pop innovation and shapeshifting experimentalism. And on this album, we get to hear Angel-Ho as a full-blown pop-diva in her element, as she stretches her ideas on pop music to near breaking point, sometimes recklessly so. Her voice is the most important instrument she has on the album and now that she has, so to speak, found her voice as a performer, she is revelling in the spotlight. On ‘Business’ and ‘Pose’, she veers from lip-smacking sounds and breathy vocal fry to dominating and fierce raps, her delivery jabbing with every syllable. On other tracks, such as ‘Destify’, ‘Good Friday Daddy’, ‘Bussy’, and ‘Muse to You’, she layers, stretches, chops up and alters her screams and yelps, into swooping alien aberrations.

At times her hyper-kinetic approach to production and song writing approaches a jarring moment too far. While the main thrust of pop music is to take the weird, noisy and strange and subject it to a buffing and polishing till they are made shiny and palatable for mass consumption, Angel-Ho keeps all the rough edges on her tracks, and while they provide a sense of unfiltered directness and raw energy, on some tracks – such as ‘Like That’ – it borders on being amateurish, a track as an idea instead of being a finished tune. Many a pop producer would have done or asked for a lot more work before letting that one be released.

Death Becomes Her is an album from an artist who in now beginning to realise her possibilities, not just as a producer but as a performer, and as such she wants to get everything out there, squeezing every last idea into the album. And sometimes her take on pop music might be a little too abrasive to reach the playlists of many a commercial pop station… for now. But the fact that she is brimming with ideas and – more importantly – a vision of what she wants her music and persona to do and say means that she is doing better than most of the other “pop stars” out there.