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Toni Sauna
Denise James Gui , July 9th, 2021 09:05

Named after Lisa Bonet's character in The Cosby Show, Toni Sauna's Denise has enough wonky beats and lackadaisacal flow for all your needs, finds James Gui

In an era when there are more subgenres of trap than you can count on your hands, it’s almost refreshing to hear a record that sticks to the classic formula: bars over beats. Toni Sauna’s Denise certainly has beats, and his stream-of-consciousness bars flow effortlessly atop their wonky contours. 

Named for the spunky Huxtable daughter in The Cosby Show, this record is quirkily anachronistic, placing as its centrepiece an actress (Lisa Bonet) who many a Gen Z hip hop fan would have to Google to get the reference. At the same time, the production (by one Dique Mills – pronounced ‘dick’ – who may or may not be related to Sauna), is pleasantly progressive. There’s plenty of swing, swaying synths, sonorous sampling. The oddball beats go hand in hand with Sauna’s palimpsest flow, layering image after loosely-related image with name drops that make sense (“Yeah Billie Jean beat it / Neverland I’m housing freaks”) and others that fly over this author’s head (“Fake Jamaican accent / Poems diarrhoea / I’ll wash my mouth out / With Everclear next year”). Both of those bars are on ‘Goon’, whose driving Latin rhythms and soaring vocal samples are standout among an already stellar lineup of beats.

There’s echoes of MF Doom here, whether it’s in the creative, jazzy production or in Sauna’s abstract lyrical digressions. ‘Sicks in One Hand’ might be the best example of this, with Sauna’s lackadaisical “anti-testosterone” flow replete with internal rhyme: “The headliner at the show should be the rapper with the illest mic flow / but it will be somebody that you already know / won’t be flowjo cudjoe at the dojo / dog eat dog bitch ain’t no ho in me yo”. Rap it alongside the ‘Accordion’ instrumental, and it’s almost a perfect fit. 

The title track ‘Denise’ is perhaps the best indicator of what this album’s about, at least with respect to its name. For those who might not know, Lisa Bonet was criticized by Cosby for performing a sex scene in the Alan Parker film Angel Heart; the same Cosby would castigate young Black men to “pull your pants up”, a classic case of E. Franklin Frazier’s ‘Black bourgeoisie’. We all know how Cosby’s story ends. The hypocrisy is almost comical, and the track reflects that humour. A jarring sample (“Denise, I would like to talk to you”) grates on the ear, sonically emphasizing Cosby’s ridiculousness.

Denise puts Sauna’s lyrical facility and Dique Mills’ production chops on full display. With enough cryptic wordplay for the poets and SP404 magic for the beat heads, this record has plenty of gas in its tank.