Genesis Owusu - Smiling with No Teeth (REVIEW)
Updated: Nov 8, 2021
Last Friday Canberra’s Genesis Owusu released his debut album, ‘Smiling with No Teeth’, to the world. Recorded inside of a tiny Bondi studio with members of those now known as ‘The Black Dog Band’, ‘Smiling with No Teeth’ was constructed through blood, sweat & experimentation with sound; an invigorating experience which aimed to unearth creativity from the deepest pits of Owusu’s soul and the souls of those involved (‘Black Dog Band’ members Michael DiFrancesco (Touch Sensitive), Kirin J Callinan, Julian Sudek & Andrew Klippel).
The lead up to ‘Smiling with No Teeth’ has set up the album as the truest embodiment of Genesis Owusu that there is. And that with it, Owusu has set out to make an album which authentically defines his experiences up until this point. Having had the fortune of experiencing Owusu & ‘The Black Dog Band’ live in Marrickville, Sydney late last year I have not been more excited for a project in Australian music than this one. Read on for the full breakdown.
‘On the Move!’
Album opener ‘On the Move!’ barely prepares you for the mind-bending journey that lays ahead. Owusu announces himself on the album by stamping with authority the line “Black, Dogs on the move”, signaling us to ready ourselves. The track itself is a brooding concoction of haunting, ephemeral vocals and the boisterous clattering of digitised beats.
‘The Other Black Dog’
The adrenaline rush of ‘The Other Black Dog’ makes me feel alive. The track encompasses fear and frenzy like no other on the album, as the introduction’s uninhibited war cry beckons us towards a descension into a hellish landscape devoid of any calm. The apocalyptic visuals which accompany the song are a testament to surviving in a seemingly increasingly chaotic world, one which Genesis and those around him are fraught with. To answer the question of who is the “other black dog” is difficult. It may be a music industry which feeds off the trauma of artists, or a beastly depression Owusu himself has been chased by. Ultimately, there is no single answer to the question. And if this album is to teach us anything, it’s that the search for clarity is self-defeating if one cannot tolerate the answer. It is sometimes better to just ignore it, “dance it off” & “laugh it off”.
‘Centrefold’ creates an incredibly seductive atmosphere with its booming synths, the warmth of Owusu’s vocals and an enchanting psychedelic soul & funk sound. The reversed repetition of lyrics in the background of the chorus is an effective reflection of the subversive nature of the song itself. Here, Owusu manifests the conditioning of a depressive frame of mind, one which at first appears to love and serve the individual, but eventually turns into a monstrous figure hellbent on sucking one’s soul dry.
‘Waitin’ on Ya’
The opening’s dreamy, electronic recount sets the scene for a track which concerns itself with the illusory comfort of a depressive mindset. Hidden beneath the veneer of silky vocals is a gloomy bubbling of something ominous, a headspace which appears to offer riches of an “eternal slumber” but is merely preying on the next organism to fester itself in and destroy. I adore Owusu’s natural vocalisation & refrained reissuing of the line “the blackest dog up in the city”; the opening lyrics from his head-bopping single ‘I Am’. ‘Waitin’ on Ya’ traverses genre beautifully, seeing Owusu switch between a pensive flow & enigmatic vocalisation with great success.
‘Don’t Need You’
Released in May of last year, ‘Don’t Need You’ is defiance incarnate. The blurred lines of its lyrics mean it could point to either Owusu’s all-consuming ‘black dog’ of depression or a devastatingly destructive relationship. Either way, Owusu is fittingly exclaiming that he no longer needs them to fit into someone else’s idea of ‘normal’.
‘Drown’ ft Kirin J Callinan
‘Drown’ is a frenetic and precise combination between Genesis Owusu & Black Dog Band member Kirin J Callinan. Not only is the manner in which Owusu and Callinan trade vocals impressive, but the stature of their words also. ‘Drown’ is a sustained callout of a lost love who now has to live with the mistake of trading down from Owusu & Callinan. It is simply a lot of fun too.
‘Gold Chains’ sees Genesis tackling the exposure that his success has brought him. The flexing of ‘gold chains’ is displayed ironically, so as to poke fun at hip-hop’s penchant for brandishing wealth as a priority. However, Genesis does relent in saying that the irresistible charm which success brings is not necessarily unideal. More so, it clashes with his own sentiments and amplifies anxieties he feels about being out of his comfort zone as he states “I sacrifice a gentle life for goals that leave me terrified”.
‘Smiling with No Teeth’
‘Smiling with No Teeth’ is a perfect titular track for this album. Aesthetically, the chorus and its surrounding sounds combine in a crescendo, providing Owusu with a seamless platform to confess to hiding his depression from a society which is fearful of & ignorant to mental illness. The overload of pain we see in the day-the-day conditions us to apathy, leaving us deficient of empathy and unable to comprehend human hurt as truth.
‘I Don’t See Colour’
The hypnotic instrumentation of ‘I Don’t See Colour’ complements Owusu’s lyrics which carry an intent to ignite not necessarily an outcry, but an awakening and a change of mindset towards an enabling of racism and racial profiling. To convey a significant message with such objectivity is a signifier of what the world already knows; that racism exists, many simply choose to placate its existence.
Ever since I saw Genesis Owusu & The Black Dog Band live, I have experienced the stranglehold of a furious guitar riff which has latched itself in my subconscious waiting for the album’s full release to be satisfied again. It is on ‘Black Dogs!’ where this riff exists, a poignant example of how addictive this album truly is.
‘Whip Cracker’ tackles Owusu’s own palpable and relatable frustrations with misguidance of the masses, institutional racism and domestic violence. As is present throughout the album, the problems which conditions our society to remain as it is are approached with a fiery voracity, with an especially intoxicating guitar riff lifting the track to a lofty echelon alongside Owusu’s sardonic lyrics.
‘Easy’ is a tremendous microcosm for the many layers of experimentation which exist throughout the album as a whole. Exuberant echoey vocals & cynical, pondering rap flows fill a track which appears to examine the breakdown of a relationship where both sides beg the question, “Can we just be easy?”.
‘A Song About Fishing’
The rust of life appears in the form of one’s scars, habits and tools. The dedication however, to get through our journey signifies a hopeful resilience in the off chance we reach some form of a destination. ‘A Song About Fishing’ captures this pleasant feeling of contentedness, one whereby you can imagine yourself singing this with Genesis at a packed festival.
‘No Looking Back’
I cannot testify to the amount I love ‘No Looking Back’ with mere words. As a song, it captures an anthemic gospel-esque acclimation of the present which is the result of accepting the past. The traumas, guilt and pain of the past have no bearing on our future, and the euphoric explosion of instrumentation which concludes this song encapsulates this freedom one feels once self-acceptance is embraced wholeheartedly. It is rare a song captures a feeling I love so fondly, but this one does.
As the concluding track on ‘Smiling with No Teeth’, ‘Bye Bye’ captures the wide-ranging, ambiguous and unpredictable soundscape of which the album is drawn upon to finalise what is one of the greatest albums of 2021. ‘Bye Bye’ sees Owusu finding himself briefly re-enchanted by the false magnetism of depression, seeking to ultimately unsheathe it in a finally of chaotic drums and screeching keys.
The emotional core of the ‘Smiling with No Teeth’ lies in its duopoly; the inherent racism of the phrase ‘black dog’ in tandem with ‘black dog’ signifying depression, have plagued Owusu throughout his life. ‘Smiling with No Teeth’ therefore is an audible manifestation of Owusu embracing fearlessness, both through his music and in his life. The physical image which Genesis Owusu seeks to embolden the listener with is one of embracement; of learning to smile not to pacify others, but to be happy for oneself.
Genesis Owusu’s music will remain with you, this is one guarantee we can make in an album bereft of clarity in regards to specificity. The effectiveness of this album is accentuated by its overall aesthetic; a double-sided Genesis Owusu combatting the foothold of depression and trauma fashioned by racism. And Owusu is nothing but candid in broaching these.
The duality of depression’s stranglehold on the individual lies in its very tangible debilitation of the soul, but as exhibited by Owusu come the album’s end, his soul belongs to him. If one can draw anything from ‘Smiling with No Teeth’, it is that true power comes from wreaking havoc on the demons inside of us by smiling and laughing at them.
For all of the playful mischievousness presented by the album’s cover, the contents within are necessarily challenging & important to take in. The music that results from Owusu’s expression of his innermost thoughts is triumphant and proud. Proud of not just the intricate mix of kaleidoscopic energy in the music, but of the artist behind it who is continually working to overcome what has held him down in the past. The only difference now is he approaches it smiling, devoid of anything mollified.
Alongside Genesis, credit belongs to the fantastic team of creatives, producers, artists, writers and managers around him. To accomplish such a triumphant feat of an album, acknowledgement must be given to those who have helped build the Genesis Owusu experience. The authenticity and sheer magnificent, spell-binding creativity on offer is something I am in awe at. To everyone involved, thank you. Even without the accompanying aesthetic of the album’s video clips, the palpable energy latent in every song leaves you picturing Genesis and his band bellowing, shimmying and strutting. That is a testament to the power of the music on show.
Published March 11th, 2021.