Smiling with No Teeth
House Anxiety / Ourness · March 5, 2021
Smiling with No Teeth, the debut album by Ghanian-Australian artist Genesis Owusu, is an incredibly striking first showing. The depth and clarity of this project comes as a complete shock, not because Owusu’s previous work wasn’t up to snuff, but because this tape is just miles ahead of anything shown before. Owusu conjures up a wide array of catchy hooks and ear-worm instrumentals without sacrificing any of the poignancy of his lyrics or message. The narrative of the album is structured around his relationship with the ‘black dog’ that hounds him from the very first track onwards. Winston Churchill famously coined this term ‘black dog’ as a metaphor for the severe depression that followed him all his life, and Owusu employs it to a similar degree. Despite his undeniable talents as a wordsmith, however, Churchill was also a total chump whose contributions to the global system of colonial oppression were single-handedly responsible for the enslavement, starvation, and murder of tens of millions. This history is not lost on Owusu, though, and he flips the phrase to give it another meaning throughout the project. The dog in Smiling with No Teeth is certainly emblematic of the artist’s personal struggle with depression, but also of his experience with racism growing up in Canberra, the overwhelmingly white Australian capital.
The first track, “On the Move!” is a short, eclectic piece that sets the tone for the rest of the album. Owusu leaps nimbly from hip-hop to soul to funk to pop to alt-rock and more on and between songs throughout the album, and the genre-bending intro is a good preview of this. The next song, “The Other Black Dog,” one of five singles to land on the project, keeps this erratic energy as Owusu excitedly chants and vocalizes over a set of understated 808s. Rather than succumb to a singular sound, however, he slows down for two low-key, melodic cuts with “Centrefold” and “Waitin’ on Ya.” The latter features one of the catchiest hooks on the whole project and sees Owusu experiment with a groovy falsetto over far airier production than the previous tracks. It also presents yet another reference to the ‘black dog’ that seems to follow Owusu across genre and style, never letting him distance himself no matter how far he travels sonically.
“Don’t Need You,” another single, is an off-puttingly upbeat change of pace in which Owusu progresses through the phases of post-breakup depression with each verse. The chorus, a jovial “I don’t need you!” is woefully unconvincing at first, as the mention of the ‘black dog’ in the first couple lines makes it clear he’s not in a good spot. However, after some introspection in the subsequent verses, the final chorus feels genuine and exhilarating. It also features the weirdly scalding diss, “I said, your ass is stinky and you built like a mole,” which is far too specific to not be referring to someone in particular. Whichever talpid (that is to say mole-shaped) person offended Mr. Owusu enough for him to include that bar: thank you for your part in the creation of this banger.
“Drown” is probably the most stereotypically indie song on the album. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it feels somewhat lame and conformist amid such a collection of experimental tunes. It does demonstrate some of the best songwriting on the album, though, and takes the allusions to Churchill’s dogs to new heights. The former Prime Minister famously avoided standing near ledges for fear that he would fling himself off them in a moment of depression, and especially steered clear of those next to large bodies of water. He once stated, “I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” Rather than rejecting it like Churchill, however, Owusu seems to lean into this fate, imploring his muse, “You’ve got to let me drown.”
Where the first half of the album was mostly concerned with the depression side of the ‘black dog,’ the second half tackles racism in a unique, thought-provoking, and catchy way. “I Don’t See Colour,” despite spelling color the stupid British way, is wickedly smart in all other aspects of its dissection of prejudice. Owusu’s lyricism is on full display with lines like “The burning of a bush told me that I was great, but the burning of a cross told me to play it safe.” These lyrics address blatant and violent acts of racism, but he also shines in addressing more subtle bigotry. In the same song he raps about how people will disparage his race in front of him and then backtrack saying “oh nah, not you man, you’re a good one.” It’s an insightful look at the gradient of intolerance that doesn’t sacrifice anything sonically in order to state its message.
“Gold Chains,” “Black Dogs!,” and “Easy” are other standouts that are definitely worth a listen. This album is thematically concise, musically expansive, adventurous, heartwarming, heartbreaking, groovy, and intellectual. It’s a beautiful hidden gem that is easily one of the strongest debut projects released by a relatively unknown artist this year. That being said, with such a wide range of experimentation it was inevitable that some styles would not work as well as others. Tracks like “Bye Bye” and “Whip Cracker” fall a little short and slow the pace of the project, but the stumbles are few and far between. This tape is fire, and Genesis Owusu is a name to watch out for.