In a lot of ways, Dessa is a music critic's nightmare. Debut records are supposed to be easy: you let it sit with you for a while, leisurely note your thoughts as they come, then organize those thoughts into something coherent. There's always the matter of context, of course, but most musicians' stories are simple enough to condense into a sentence or two of familiar tropes. Guitar dude meets singer dude by momentous twist of fate in dingy bar/church/basement; broke girl chasing fame couchsurfs around major metropolis for years before finally catching her big wave; lonely genius spends summer multitracking an orchestra of genius selves on ingenious debut record; what-have-you, et cetera. To be honest, it doesn't get much harder from there, either — by the time the next record drops, all you have to do is extend the narrative.
But every once in a while, someone like Dessa comes along. If your average band's story is a straight line, then hers is a Cartesian coordinate system. She's a whole web of unusual tales in one, and picking a place to start is sort of like trying to figure out the best route through a choose-your-own-adventure novel — which is to say that since moving to Minneapolis for her undergrad degree, Dessa's had a life in just about every artistic scene in town. There's her longstanding career in spoken word, which earned her a place on the state slam poetry team, as well as her creative non-fiction, which was collected in last year's critically acclaimed Spiral Bound. And there's her vocal work as a founding member of the stunning Boy Sopranos a cappella group. Over the years, she's had something of a hip-hop apprenticeship beneath local gurus like MC Yoni and P.O.S., to speak nothing of her own career as a teacher at a couple of local music colleges. A writer could kill an entire word count just trying to suss out the woman's every detail.
But that's what makes this music critic's nightmare a music lover's dream. A Badly Broken Code is the kind of album that rewards attention — not only because it's a first-rate grower, but also because you can hear the myriad threads of Dessa weaving together in such a distinct and wonderful way. The metrical experiments and poetic storytelling of tightly wound narratives like "Children's Work" speak to her depth in literature and slam, while the stark, damaged guitars and R&B harmonies of "Mineshaft II" find her deftly blending her heroes Jeff Buckley and Lauryn Hill. But the damp, frostbit Minnesota night exerts perhaps the biggest influence on the record, as a dark and noirish vibe hangs above each song like a broken streetlight over a shady part of town.
Although there's not a bad track among the 15 here ("Crew" may grate, depending on your stomach for posse self-love), Dessa's at her best when her many backgrounds unite in service of a single thought. This happens a handful of times on Broken Code, namely the lithe and mesmerizing "Momento Mori," the haunting vocal beds and hymnal ascent of the a cappella "Poor Atlas," and the absolutely gorgeous closer "Into the Spin." My favorite is "Dixon's Girl," a big band beat that marries smoky jazz club verses and rhyme scheme acrobatics with an infectious R&B double-chorus. The result is likely one of the best hip-hop songs you'll hear this year, let alone from the rare type of MC that manages to be white, female, and supremely talented all in one.
On the whole, A Badly Broken Code finds Dessa coming into her own as an artist of the musical form and suggests that P.O.S. might have made a fine rival for himself on his own Doomtree roster. What's crazy is that Dessa recently said in an interview that though she's fast improving as a rapper and vocalist, she's still most proud of her work as a prose writer. Guess I'll be nabbing that book of non-fiction, too.