By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Brian Palmer
Twin Cities hip-hop crew Doomtree has come a long way in the nearly four years since the collective's 2008 self-titled debut, let alone the decade since it came together. The members have grown more comfortable not only in their own skins and talents, but with each other propelling them to a new level collectively.
"Every once in a while, we'll get a compliment on our choreography," laughs raven-haired rapper Dessa, even considering the possibility. "We barely rehearse. It's just we've been doing this for so long, everyone knows where to go."
That confidence and self-assurance shines on the new album, No Kings, whose title reflects their shared perspective. From the beginning, they've been a dramatically democratic group. On this release, Doomtree went for full-on collaboration, building on what they learned running a label built on consensus. All the producers created the beats together in a room and gave them to the MCs, who wrote the lyrics over the course of a week while stuck together in a cabin.
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All seven members have grown in the four years since Doomtree's last release. They've developed more skills and proved particularly productive the last couple of years. Dessa and Mike Mictlan finally released long-awaited follow-ups to critically heralded EPs that go back several years. Sims finally followed up 2005's critically lauded Lights Out Paris last February with Bad Time Zoo.
Others, like P.O.S. or Lazerbeak, maintained their usual breakneck pace. Aside from playing guitar in the Plastic Constellations, Lazerbeak produced Mictlan's and Sims' last albums, is working on a new album with Cecil Otter, and has an instrumental album coming out this year. Last summer, Otter collaborated with Swiss Andy on Wugazi's 13 Chambers, a mash-up of Wu-Tang Clan and Fugazi. Onetime punk rocker/metalhead P.O.S. remains a road dog and is preparing to release his fourth album later this year.
Recent personal successes help make No Kings work. "Getting better and more confident as solo artists makes collaborating easier," Dessa says. "You're worried less about creating an impression or staving off that panic of the impression that you're the weakest link."
It's hard to believe Dessa could feel deficient, given the quality of her recent output. The spoken-word artist — who recalls getting brutally (verbally) smacked down by Sage Francis at a national spoken-word competition — released Spiral Bound, a collection of essays, prose, and poetry in 2009, and followed in 2010 with her debut LP, A Badly Broken Code. Castor, The Twin arrived last year, reimagining her debut with live instrumentation that's a lot closer to orchestral pop than hip-hop.
"We couldn't just play what [the producers had] written because we'd lose so much in translation — all the textural intrigue of the hip-hop beats the guys at Doomtree create to make this a workable composition," she says.
At times, the album even dips into torch jazz, as on the sultry "Dixon's Girl." It showcases not only Dessa's deft flow but her soulful croon. She'd doubted her voice since she was a child, when she sang with her mother, only slowly warming to its sound. "My mom had a much more beautiful singing voice than I do. With just a child's quick math, I figured that if she had a better voice than me and she wasn't famous . . ." Dessa trails off.
Dessa confesses that the pressure of the positive response to 2005's False Hopes EP spooked her. "I had to give myself whatever the opposite of the pep talk [is]. I realized this business wasn't one where there is a safe option to play. Even if you make it big, there will be a record where you're perceived as having fallen off," Dessa says. "Just steadying myself for that and realizing failure is part of the game. You try and do the best that you can and handle that when that comes. There's no way to brace for [it] or guarantee against it."
Now, she's simply ready for whatever may come, and the audience should be, as well — Doomtree shows are famous for their spirited collective performances.