Turn off the swag and check your bag. This is the advice that Catherine Harris-White gives at the beginning of “QueenS”, as a sultry, disco-funk melody starts to creep into the arrangement. It is sound advice; one should not come into this album expecting “swag”, in the modern sense of the word. AwE naturalE is pre-swag. It has the kind of energy that people used to call “having soul”. While intending to place themselves within the great canon of afrocentric American music, THEESatisfaction remain fundamentally distinct from the majority of what is placed in that category today. They are more Bobbi Humphrey than Lil B. More Gil Scott-Heron than Tyler, the Creator. Still, this does not necessitate that their music is dated. Quite the opposite, as the duo’s ability to draw on R&B, hip-hop, soul, jazz, disco, and funk while being firmly rooted in their own aesthetic results in a sound that is persistently and effortlessly fresh.
THEESatisfaction (Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons) hails from Seattle and is often described as “that group that works with Shabazz Palaces.” While this is true (the duo made a memorable contribution to “Swerve…” off of Black Up, one of last year’s best albums) it will soon be an unnecessary reference point. It is helpful to begin to digest THEESatisfaction by way of Shabazz Palaces, in that both groups share a musical philosophy that involves equal parts bass, groove, and what Sun Ra called afrofuturism, but it is also a mistake to deny them their fierce individuality. Harris-White and Irons’ approach is unique for a number of reasons: singing and rapping combine harmoniously, as Harris-White’s silky voice is not merely an interlude between verses but a fundamental part of the sound; the ladies compose and produce all of their own music and all of the instrumentation, save for one sample, is live; and, while the disjointed, spoken-word style of rapping is similar to that of Palaceer Lazaro’s, the verses are more emotional, humorous, and human.
The opening track, “awE”, begins and ends in a jolt. It is a brief but potent roadmap for what is to come. Funky synths wind in and out of an off-kilter rhythm; the bass comes in heavy and the drums build into a hip-hop break; voices chanting “yeah” linger in the background. It is an effective prelude but, like a classy amount of cleavage, it only gives you a small inkling of the bounty that’s in store. “Bitch” changes the pace. The stark musical backing, courtesy of Tendai Maraire’s percussion (which also graces Shabazz Palaces) and E. Blood’s bass work, lets the leading ladies establish their unmistakable groove. They proclaim themselves the “bitch[es] on the side” with equal parts irony and pride.
The bouncy “Bitch” leads into “Earthseed”, a brooding, jazzy number that ends with the first bars of the album. After two minutes of Harris-White’s hypnotic crooning, Irons’ lyrics burst onto the track like a gunshot. In this case the lines are as poetic as they are political (“Hitler stashed Obamas wearing army colored sashes/ rainbow flags blowing, burning crosses, sprinkled ashes/ in the oiled waters of the dollars dropped on masses/ THEESatisfaction could give a fuck about a fascist”). There is no more to say after that; the track fades out and most listeners will, if not they have already, realize how great of an album they are in for. In that vein, the next track “QueenS” is a groovy, infectious anthem that revolves around the refrain “whatever you do, don’t funk with my groove”. No one would dare.
Near the end of “QueenS” the duo sings “sweat through your cardigan”. The absurdity of the line and the way it’s delivered made me laugh out loud. This is one of many wonderfully quirky lyrical turns throughout the album. On “Deeper” Irons notes that “the world is flat/ flatter than your ass” and that “if a monster were to attack/ it wouldn’t find me at night/ because I camouflage to black”. Apparently, she watches “Good Times in bad times” and on “Enchantruss” she discusses the racial aspects of her education, recalling the “black jesus” who “of course was white”. Irons’ cadence is built to tuck in these sharp witticisms. It’s a flow that needs to be peeled back layer by layer, revealing new arcane references (see Archie Bunk) every time. It’s easy to draw attention to the humor in their lyrics but the majority of the content is not meant to be laughed at. The duo are continually delving into questions of justice, love, and identity (being gay, black, female hip-hop/R&B artists is hardly a well-traveled path).
THEESatsifaction have seemingly put all of the creative energy that has been swirling in them and between them into awE naturalE. They have a few tapes to their name before this but it is clear that this is meant to be their mission statement. It is a pride-infused, soulful space journey that demands as much hip shaking as it does poetry analysis. On “naturalE”, Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons proclaim themselves the “queens of the stoned age”. Long may they rein.
Listen to ‘awE naturalE’ in its entirety here.