This album feels like one we shouldn’t be allowed to hear. Kofi Owusu-Ansah, a Ghanaian-born and Canberra-based artist synthesizes the sounds he adores to create a project so personal it could easily be misconstrued as a formative album that defined his childhood.
Owusu is an artist in the purest sense. In an interview with NME, he peruses an Australian art gallery the way a curator would. He appreciates art, in all forms, just as much as he enjoys creating. Genesis Owusu delivers on this idea in spades on SWNT, drawing stylistically on artists from Death Grips to Prince, from Slowthai to OMC. This album, sometimes joltingly and sometimes fluidly, transitions between soul, rap, hip-hop, escape room/electronica, and psychedelia. This genre diversity can be clearly seen on ‘A Song About Fishing’, my introduction to Owusu’s music, where he dabbles in folk and indie sounds.
Despite the huge variety of inspiration and genres, Owusu-Ansah makes it painfully clear that this project is a sort of soundtrack to his mental landscape. This album is as personal to Owusu as an album could be, yet also familiar to a listener who connects with parts of the musical influences or cultural motifs.
The ¨Black Dog¨ image that permeates the album’s writing paints an obscured yet well-outlined portrait of Owusu’s depression. However, from when the driving synth beat leads us into “The Other Black Dog”, we can tell that this won’t be an album drenched in depressing imagery. Rather than wallow in the self-destructive nature that Owusu’s Black Dog represents, he begins a fragile flight which he hopes will allow him to stay one step ahead of his negative emotions.
Along the way, Owusu makes various pit stops across the landmarks of his mind. In “Centrefold”, he crafts a hall of mirrors in which a lover is reflected. “Waitin’ on Ya” and “Don’t Need You” are opposites, possibly directed towards a past relation or the Black Dogs themselves. In “Drown” and “Gold Chains”, Owusu dives back down into negative emotions and materialism, a possible relegation of the self to his perceived fate as a neurodivergent black man.
Smiling With No Teeth is a rare example of a project that is as well-realized as it is ambitious. Pitchfork and NME compare Owusu to greats like Kanye West, with his ability to turn his mind into music. The true insertion of the self that this album contains is its greatest strength, with the idea that Owusu is speaking his truth to no one but himself.
Finally, time for the comparisons. Finishing this album, with “No Looking Back” and “Bye Bye”, we see Owusu fade off into the distance with a flourish. Finally we understand why the album, while so personal, also evokes a sense of struggle within the listeners. Owusu owns his Black Dogs, and bares his heart on SWNT about his relation to them and his fear for the future. Through this, listeners can learn to personify or quantify their own struggles, and be led through their very own tailored maze.
This album, if we were to take Owusu as an artist out of the equation, tells a beautiful but tragic story. The image I imagined while listening was that of a long journey. In the beginning, the protagonist is in medias res amidst a storm of mental health and paranoia. They begin a wild escape from their own mind, distracting themselves with the things around and within them. At times, they get lost in their mind, thinking of past relationships and introspecting without direction. On other occasions, they get lost in the streetlights, and in storefront windows, buying out shops in order to feel like a new version of themselves.
This album tells the story of continuous relapse and escape. On one hand, our protagonist does become a new person, capable of limiting their introspection and not “Looking Back”. But ultimately, their “Black Dogs” catch up with them. Like the sort of painful relief a quitting smoker feels when they finally cave and buy a pack, Owusu learns that the path towards stability is sometimes marked by failures, not by continuous and linear progression. He learn to see them as part of himself, but in no way does this album signify an end to Owusu’s story. With Black Dogs in tow, the journey towards healing has only begun.