Smiling With No Teeth, the debut album by Ghanaian-born, Canberra-based singer and rapper Kofi Owusu-Ansah, AKA Genesis Owusu, was the kind of success story that so rarely occurs in Australian music. Recorded in a short burst with a motley crew of musicians (including Touch Sensitive and Kirin J Callinan) and released on an independent label, its blend of jolting post-punk, sleazy funk and raw, emotive hip-hop proved novel and compelling enough to break through to a mainstream audience. It netted Owusu-Ansah an Aria award for album of the year – making him the second person of colour and first rapper to win that title – as well as a high-profile sync in a Google ad and a slot supporting Paramore on their US tour.
The plaudits were notable for a few reasons: it’s rare for any fully independent artist to break through with such speed, and Owusu-Ansah was making music that, while accessible and pop-leaning, sounded decidedly unlike much else in the Australian mainstream. Most of all, it was notable because Owusu-Ansah was rapping about racism not with the kind of fiery polemic usually favoured by white audiences, but from the perspective of someone whose experience of discrimination in Australia had led to profound, deep-seated depression. There was something liverish but unflinching about the way Owusu-Ansah rapped about “the two black dogs”: one representing racism and the other depression.
All of this to say: Smiling With No Teeth is a tough act to follow. Struggler, Owusu-Ansah’s second album, recaptures some of the sparky brilliance of its predecessor but, for the most part, is a less compelling, less rigorously conceived project; an aesthetic and conceptual retread. While not without its moments, Struggler often feels like a fuzzier and less galvanising record; it is defined, for the most part, by its similarities to the album that came before.
Unlike Smiling With No Teeth, which was largely produced by Owusu-Ansah’s manager Andrew Klippel alongside musician Dave Hammer, Struggler was made with something of a scattershot trajectory, songs being recorded in between Owusu-Ansah’s busy touring schedule. I don’t think that’s necessarily the key fault of this record, but it certainly means that Struggler lacks the bracing velocity of the debut, which benefited from a consistent band and an ineffable aesthetic unity; here, high-gloss songs such as Balthazar and The Old Man, both of which bear striking similarity to Bloc Party, rub up against more interesting fare, such as jazzy R&B detours such as That’s Life (A Swamp) and Stuck to the Fan.
And where Smiling With No Teeth was prone to getting swept up in its own sense of movement (think of the immaculate four-song run from Waitin’ On Ya through to Gold Chains, a relatively low-key chapter of the album that nonetheless felt gripping and intense), Struggler is comparatively mild, Owusu-Ansah seemingly riffing and stalling in hope of a grand set piece that never arrives.
Owusu-Ansah’s lyrics prove some of the album’s greatest obstacles; so often they feel ill-defined, more interested in sketching out the character of the Roach – his alter ego – than any significant insight or poeticism. On almost every song, concept overrides music: Leaving the Light and The Old Man both rely on the same lyrical conceit (“Better run, there’s a god/And he’s coming for me;”); Owusu-Ansah namechecks well-known pop songs in multiple tracks (“I’m tryna break free with a penciled stanza/So are we human or are we dancer?”; “Sodom and Gommorah/Vogue, strike a pose”) with seemingly little intent other than the meme-ability of doing so.
There are still highlights among an otherwise limp record: Stuck to the Fan, the album’s closing track, is a wounded, emotive highlight, exploring a rocky relationship as well as Owusu-Ansah’s own self-worth with remarkable clarity. What Comes Will Come, a skronking synth-pop-rap song, finds Owusu-Ansah sinking himself into production that strikes an interesting midpoint between goth-rock and shimmering synth-funk, one of the rare moments on the album that feels musically akin to the disorienting genre mashup of Smiling With No Teeth. These passages offer welcome electricity on an album that too often plays it safe and plays it vague – capitalising on an algorithm-breaking debut with more of the same.
Struggler by Genesis Owusu is out now