Die Antwoord, South Africa’s premiere “zef” rap-rave crew, had generated a small internet tsunami with its guerilla publicity campaign, which consisted of a barrage of over-the-top music videos, short films and singles, culminating in their debut release, $O$. On the heels of this trailblazing, global yet independent phenomenon, Die Antwoord have returned with their second full length release, Ten$ion. The group continues to tread upon the now familiar rap-rave territory with which they had previously invaded the interweb. Ten$ion‘s first single, “Fok Julle Naaiers” rides another menacing, synth-heavy beat from DJ Hit-Tek. Ninja returns with some uninspired lines, in his trademark, angry Afrikaans-Eminem delivery–the highlight doesn’t come until Ninja passes the mic to Hi-Tek for a blunt, Mike Tyson-quoting verse that may very well have signified the end of their deal with Interscope. The more danceable “I Fink Ur Freeky”, seems to fall on the rave-side of the “zef” sonic spectrum, but its not nearly as memorable or infectious as $0$‘s Beat Boy (a track I will still allow to run its 8 minute course when it comes on). There is still some “next-level shit” to be found on Ten$ion, such as the percussive beat/rhyme attack of “Fatty Boom Boom”, one of the few tracks where Ninja and Yolandi really let their mic skills shine, over Hi-Tek’s booming bass and Atari blips like a more polished UK grime beat. “So What”, a nod to the LA/Dr. Dre gangsta-rap style championed by their former label, is another tight rhyme-driven track that will make your head bob like it was 1990-something. On the whole, it seems that the group has played it perhaps too safe, relying more on generic and danceable tunes like “Baby’s On Fire”, another typical Euro-tinged dance track for Yolandi to drop some rather pointless lines over–although, it is pretty amusing to hear Ninja belting out harmonies on the stadium-ready chorus.
Ten$ion provides little in the way of anything catchy or memorable or challenging. Its a solid Die Antwoord release, one to be safely filed under “adequate sophomore effort.” And therein lies the real disappointment. Though widely seen as a sequel to the viral explosion of $O$, Ten$ion actually represents an artistic plateau of an incredibly dynamic and subversive career, 20 years in the making. The general public is still fairly ignorant about the fact that Ninja, aka Watkin Tudor Jones has been at this for quite some time. Jones has helmed various outfits since the early 90’s, incorporating everything — hip-hop, punk, electronica, and the occasional folk tune. He eventually banded together with Anri Du Toit (Yolandi Vi$$er), DJ Sibot and others, as The Constructus Corporation. Their lone release, The Ziggurat, was something of an epic dystopian masterpiece, a concept album that blended Jones’ impressive rhyming skills (Du Toit serving as his hype-man) with minimalist electronica and a psychedelic hip-hop swagger that seemed to build on the classic Automator/Kool Keith output from the late 90’s. This ground-breaking album included a graphic novel, thus beginning the tradition of the integrated, multimedia approach that Jones would continue to use. As with most of Jones’ projects, the group quickly disintegrated.
As with Die Antwoord, each project after Contructus saw Jones and Du Toit adopting different personae, in order to express different fragments of their own identity, and perhaps the collective identity of the world around them (a concept that Jones has essentially spelled out on every album he’s ever made). For example, Die Antwoord’s most recent predecessor, MaxNormal.TV, was essentially the story of a misfit, nerdy white guy in a suit, frustrated at his inability to break into the ever-devolving hip-hop scene, where he plans to deliver his self-help styled message – Jones’ usual anti-drug, vegetarian, quasi-Buddhist optimistism. The gospel of Max Normal was spread at shows across South Africa and Europe, through the eclectic music as well as Powerpoint presentations and short films, operated by his “personal assistant” Yolandi Vi$$er. Again, the visual art is almost as central to the project as the music itself — and now included Jones’ own hand made plush stuffed monsters, called chommies, which would later be incorporated in the cute/grotesque Die Antwoord aesthetic.
So, in light of this long history, one has to wonder: why has Jones decided to stick with Ninja and Yolandi? Watty’s career is something very unique. In an era dominated by nostalgia and mass produced pop images, where Lady Gaga’s slighty grotesque Madonna can pass for being edgy, there seems to be a dearth of truly risk-taking, unique, and ambitious creators. If the question was how to break through this assembly-line mentality and reach people, Die Antwoord did provide The Answer after all; Ninja’s fierce internet campaign finally struck gold, and asked us all to connect with our inner Afrikaans slum dweller (a stretch even for Watty). Theyt grasped our attention with this satirical hyperbole, complete with mullets, gang tattoos and ugly mustaches, but how long of a shelf life do these caricatures have? If the point of Die Antwoord is to confront the listener with ideas about pop culture, South African culture, and perhaps the idea of identity itself, is their work now done? Of course, the music is still entertaining in and of itself, but as a conceptual narrative, Ten$ion offers very little character development. Not much has changed since we first encountered “Zef-side” on the internet. Unfortunately, Die Antwoord’s target demographic is one that so often consumes and excretes internet phenomena in a matter of months, with callous fans already proclaiming that these 15 minutes of fame are up.
However, Die Antwoord are doing their best to up the provocative ante. Ten$ion‘s release was preceded by the video for “Fok Julle Naaiers”, with its bleak and grimy visuals (and a possible nod-to or knock-on Tyler the Creator’s similar meteoric rise to fame and the nightmarish, bug-eating aesthetic in “Yonkers”), which culminated in the obscene and feather-ruffling Dj Hi-Tek rant. This video appeared with a companion piece, in which Ninja explains Hi-Tek’s flagrant use of “faggot”, and how South Africa is a bastion of human tolerance, a “rainbow nation”. His straight delivery is the stuff of pure comedy gold, another middle finger to those who have not yet bothered to understand the group. Speaking of the “rainbow nation”, the follow-up, video, “I Fink U Freeky”, further solidifies the “zef” aesthetic; something like a nightmarish Benetton advertisement filmed in hell. Its a zef utopia, where the filth and beauty of human diversity are celebrated. While these videos are provocative, exciting, and still manage to shock us, they barely disguise the fact that the music on Ten$ion hasn’t evolved at all, sounding more like a formulaic afterthought. But this is, of course, the Internet Era. Videos go viral, while albums are casually downloaded and passed along. Where Jones’ other musical projects incorporated a spectacle, the spectacle of Die Antwoord now merely incorporates music. Ten$ion presents a group that, for the moment, has eschewed evolution in order to enjoy its transition to success. The fact that they’ve recently had to wriggle free from the creative shackles of a corporate record label, also indicates that Ninja and co. may just be catching their breath, or fleshing their ideas out in other ways. Personally, as a fan of the unbridled creative whims of Watkin Tudor Jones, and not exclusively Die Antwoord, I’m more excited about where they will go next, and hope they are eventually able to emerge from demanding labels, global fandom and cantankerous music critics with their integrity and vision intact.