© 2023 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dessa: Breaking The Rules Of Rap

The Minneapolis rapper known as Dessa doesn't have a typical hip-hop profile, but her talent more than compensates. Maggie Wander, 28, graduated from the University of Minnesota at 20, and then worked as a medical writer. She co-founded an a cappella group called the Boy Sopranos. She's an outspoken fan of Jeff Buckley and the kind of arty alt-rockers he inspired. And, under the name Dessa, Wander just released a terrific hip-hop album called A Badly Broken Code.

Dessa is the only woman in Doomtree, a predominantly white and punk-identified Minneapolis hip-hop collective whose best-known member is the African-American rapper P.O.S. I'm here to tell you that Dessa smokes P.O.S., even though she breaks all of the rap rules. Not because she breaks the rules; her clean timbre and stated preference for melody over rhythm don't bode well. But as it happens, Dessa is a fluent lyricist who really knows how to propel words with beats.

In a time when most lyricists, especially outside hip-hop, purvey impenetrable poetry, Dessa is generally very clear, which isn't to say she avoids metaphor or feels obliged to nail down every detail. She recalls an old-fashioned high-quality singer-songwriter like Joni Mitchell or Rosanne Cash -- just one who's decided that hip-hop beats, tolerantly and inclusively conceived, are a modern lyricist's most effective delivery system. My favorite track on A Badly Broken Code is a slow one I passed by at first -- "Go Home," in which she sends a married male friend away before things get out of hand. I'd love to hear Rosanne Cash's arrangement.

Uncommonly for hip-hop, most of Dessa's songs are about relationships, and not just romantic ones; family and friends also get her detailed and insightful attention. Because she's a hip-hopper, she reserves special feelings for her musical buddies in Doomtree -- "There's no love / like crew love," she singsongs. But because she's a hip-hopper, she's also not above bragging a little. She's got a right.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Christgau
Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.