A Badly Broken Code
Considering everything released in 2010 (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Revolutions Per Minute, Sir Lucious Left Foot…, How I Got Over, etc.), the most heartfelt and sincere album of that year might be the product of Minneapolis native and Doomtree associate, Dessa.
Her debut full-length record, A Badly Broken Code, isn’t something that messes with you on the surface; it’s a straight slap to the head, hitting you with full-blown nostalgia, and the pain and suffering that can come from it. Splashed with production by Doomtree collective members Cecil Otter, Lazerbeak, MK Larada (former member), Paper Tiger and non-member Big Jess, A Badly Broken Code dances along with Dessa’s energy, passion, happiness and sadness. It’s this connection that further pushes this masterpiece, where not only is the production feeding off of Dessa’s stories, but it’s also further supplying her ammunition to hit her targets more clearly.
“Go Home” tracks Dessa dealing with a past relationship with a significant other, and as she fleshes out her feelings, Paper Tiger’s clanging production plays like a march to “go home” by. Stretching out her bars and singing a beautiful chorus, Dessa isn’t just sincere with her emotion, but she’s also smart and witty with how she does it (“Already have my own problems/ I’m not trying to be sainted”). On “Mineshaft II,” the sequel to “Mineshaft” off of her False Hopes EP, Dessa continues to track her life through colorful lines of controlled emotion: “I used to sing on the roof outside my windowsill/ And I came hoping some ghost of me would be here still/ And here you are, stick figure and a busted grin/ Still ignorant of all the trouble I’mma get us in.”
The overlying standstill of A Badly Broken Code is Dessa’s stories. The production from her fellow Doomtree associates is spot-on, playing along word for word, but to get away from her actual content would be to blow over this album’s purpose. The opening track, “Children’s Work,” rings quickly with dedication to Dessa’s younger brother explaining their relationship as siblings. Running deeper however is Dessa’s overall portrayal of her family life, and it’s absolutely amazing how she works it into such mystifying subject matter (“Now we’ve got a grown up love/ And I know that’s how it’s supposed to be/ Same old story: Mom gets Easters, lets Dad have Christmas Eve”). Elsewhere, Dessa showcases her prowess and completely rattles the speakers. Whether she’s bluntly stating how dominant she is as an artist (“The Bullpen”), or giving love to Doomtree (“Crew”), Dessa has a knack for relaying her stories successfully through her lyrics, emotion and energy.
A Badly Broken Code might be one of 2010’s best hip-hop releases for many reasons. For one, it’s like a storybook into the ultra talented Dessa’s mind. As we go from track-to-track, turning the pages as the needle runs, Dessa displays a complex and rhythmic way of speaking on a soapbox. The subject matter covers lots of ground, but no matter the level, Dessa performs. Opening up a new way of telling stories through hip-hop, A Badly Broken Code can run with anything.
When it comes to hip-hop, every city in the United States, and around the world, boasts a different sound and style. This comes from the various influences and histories that have been weaved together over time to form regional identities. For example, hip-hoppers from New York City can throw it all the way back to the beginning while Detroit artists point to J Dilla and the sound of Motown. Each place has contributed to hip-hop and the continuation of the art form and culture. With an unorthodox and inventive approach, this has been true of the artists up in Minneapolis, Minnesota as well. Of Doomtree fame, Dessa has been a part of representing her hometown and building this regional identity. Her debut record from 2010, A Badly Broken Code, bridges her academic past with a musical ferocity that exemplifies the range of hip-hop in the northern Midwest.
Opening up and being vulnerable around new people is difficult. On A Badly Broken Code, Dessa allows us into her life on the very first track, “Children’s Work,” a gentle, back-beat infused dedication to her younger brother. “Children’s Work” reminds us about growing up and the unconditional love that can exist between siblings and that “children aren’t as simple as we’d like to think.” The beginning to this album is tender and empowering, especially if you have a sibling. As A Badly Broken Code moves forward, Dessa demonstrates her range and abilities as a storyteller. On “Dixon’s Girl” we learn about her experience meeting a talented woman in an abusive relationship during an unlikely snow-storm in Mississippi. With a swanky clarinet loop and distant ride cymbal pings, Dessa forces us to confront and think about the very real issue of domestic abuse.
“I haven’t met too many women in this business that I really like
But you can hold a little liquor
You could hold a conversation
You could hold your own mic, and
Even that night I learned the truth about your man;
You gotta be big to treat pretty girls bad”
Close to the end of the album, Dessa comes with “The Bullpen,” more of a classic hip-hop track under the production of Doomtree colleague Paper Tiger. Complete with fast moving, upbeat horn stabs and hard-hitting snares, “The Bullpen” is nothing short of an empowering, braggadocious anthem. Placing herself within the context of being a female MC she declares:
“It’s been assumed I’m soft or irrelevant
Cause I refuse to down play my intelligence
But in a room of thugs and rap veterans
Why am I the only one
Who’s acting like a gentleman”
“The Bullpen” is powerful because it’s hype and full of the slick intellectual swagger that is ever-present in Dessa’s work.
With much of the production coming from MK Larada and Paper Tiger as well as guest appearances from vocalist Matthew Santos, violinist Jessy Green and P.O.S., the musical uniqueness of A Badly Broken Code is non-stop. The sound of the record is not necessarily one that a traditionalist would associate with a hip-hop record. In my opinion this presents the perfect backdrop for Dessa to use her skills as a spoken word poet, singer and MC. Listen to Dessa and A Badly Broken Code if you are in search of a record that symbolizes much of what the Minneapolis hip-hop scene has to offer.