Album Review: Smiling with No Teeth
Updated: Jul 14, 2022
Smiling with No Teeth is the debut album from Ghanaian-Australian singer and rapper, Genesis Owusu. It is an album I would recommend to anyone, but whenever I'm asked what type of music it is, I struggle to articulate a concrete answer.
Owusu fuses the hard bass and upbeat synths of a modern neo-soul album with abrasive moments akin to punk, straightforward hip hop tracks, and layered, intricate production not unlike that on a quality electronic album. These four key sounds - soul, punk, rap, and electronica - read on paper as though the album would be an amalgamation of half-baked ideas, without a cohesive sound or focus to tie the album together into a whole. However, the end-product is one of the most eclectic and exciting albums in recent times, and a true testament to the unapologetic creativity Genesis Owusu possesses for risking such a unique and varied sound for his debut.
The album's opener, 'On the Move!', is a hard-hitting track with sparkling synths layered over a harsh bassline, with Owusu barking his words as he describes the foreboding 'black dog'. The black dog is a metaphor for depression and suffering, with this symbolism being present throughout the entire album. Owusu describes his struggle to fight against the dog, which hunts and overpowers him. As the song reaches its end, he gives up his Death Grips style shouting and sings the last few lines, juxtaposing the harsh instrumental. Personally, I interpreted the soft vocals over the loud and abrasive instrumental as a sonic representation of Owusu's battle against the black dog, with his vocals drowning in the noise as his peace of mind is withered away by depression. As he sings about the black dog overpowering him, his vocals stop, and the track ends on the bassline, as though his depression has won over him. These subtle details may be exclusive to my interpretation, but regardless, it showcases the amount of meaning and symbolism Owusu can convey in under two minutes.
This evocative sound carries on throughout the rest of Smiling with No Teeth. The following song, 'The Other Black Dog', explains the metaphor in greater detail. Owusu's grim vocals, coupled with his upbeat delivery, make for an interesting dichotomy where he describes his suffering with depression in such a carefree tone, as though numb to the pain or, more likely, masking it with artificial happiness. This is supported by the line in which he states, "I switched myself to plastic, don't know how to change it back." Thus, as the album title suggests, Owusu is smiling with no teeth: forcing a cheerful look on his face without any passion or genuine happiness behind his mask. The production includes these ascending synths, maintaining the energy of the track but giving it an almost sinister undertone, as the ascending instrumental mimics the feeling of rising stress, as is often conveyed in other mediums with a rising violin.
Every song on this album could be analysed in so much depth, but if I did that for all sixteen tracks, this would end up as an analytical essay rather than a review. Besides, half of the joy of Smiling with No Teeth is the ambiguity of its sounds and lyrics, in which everyone may have their own interpretation to experience the album in an entirely different light.
Some of my other favourite highlights in the first half of the album include 'Centrefold', which uses these reversed vocals in the chorus, giving it a haunting, psychedelic charm. 'Waitin' On Ya' might be my favourite song on the album - it's a slower, soulful cut with some of the darkest lyricism on the album. He switches between a higher and lower voice, representing different thoughts in his mind (or the voices of the black dog), all getting increasingly pessmistic as the track progresses. He alludes to the Biblical image of a house on sand, destined to be ruined by waves, symbolising the destructive nature of the black dog as Owusu is hypnotised under its control and fears drowning as the depression washes over him.
'Don't Need You' has a groovy bassline, punching drums, and a catchy chorus, making it one of the more accessible songs on the album. On the surface, it may sound like Owusu breaking away from a bad relationship, but knowing the context of the rest of the record makes it clear this is merely another metaphor for the black dog, and how he does not need to live suffering in the black dog's company.
Songs like 'Gold Chains' and 'Drown' build on these themes of being held down and wishing to escape, leading up to the beautiful title-track, 'Smiling with No Teeth.' It has such a spacious, tranquil instrumental, setting it apart from the rest of the track-list. The verses are spoken word, contrasting the uplifting chorus in which a handful of voices harmonise at the climax, making it one of the most satisfying and powerful moments on the album.
'I Don't See Colour' and 'Whip Cracker' add a new dimension to the symbol of the black dog, taking the shape of racism which amplifies Owusu's suffering. The lyricism on the former track is so cold and his delivery is so passionate, while the highlight on 'Whip Cracker' is the explosive, electric guitar production which erupts in the second half of the song, made all the more impactful by the minimalist drum beat which takes up the first half of the song. Every instrumental choice feels so precise, building on Owusu's emotions and adding power to his vocals. Every drum that kicks in, every synth added, or guitar introduced, adds a whole new layer to each song, making the instrumentals sound alive as they evolve so much over the course of each track.
All throughout Smiling with No Teeth, the lyrics are thought-provoking, the symbolism engaging and creative, the production dynamic, and the performances from Owusu so charismatic. The themes of depression and racism weave into one another perfectly, with the album progressing naturally as he tackles different aspects of his own despair, hope, and suffering. There are constant allusions to drowning, as Owusu describes his struggle to keep above the water and not be consumed in the flood of depression and pain. In the final track, 'Bye Bye', the album reaches a chilling, poignant conclusion as Owusu questions what is left of him after all his suffering, and panics to stay alive in the overwhelming flood:
"Hardly swimming, only sinking in the void
Saw your smiling teeth but they were only fangs to destroy
Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe
In the dirt I can see
I am built on what I bleed
There’s a blade I can't sheathe
Slice my chest with the ease
I'm immersed in this sea
Is this your fur or is it me?"
This final line sees Owusu questioning if his thoughts are his own, or is it the influence of the black dog still haunting him? The dramatic synth production, coupled with the unnerving chant of "Bye bye, crawling back to you" in the chorus, makes this such an impactful and memorable song, ending the album on such an emotional high.
Smiling with No Teeth is one of the most impressive debut albums I've ever heard. Genesis Owusu has such a talent for writing - the symbolism is so dense with countless meanings, and he articulates his arduous fight against depression with such vigour and passion. The production can sound so serene and atmospheric, such as on 'Waitin' On Ya' or 'A Song About Fishing', whereas a few songs later the sound will evolve completely into a punk-inspired roar of guitar and crashing drums. So much emotion is expressed in this album, from despair, to anger, to hopefulness. For a debut album, it's quite an ambitious project. However, it seems Genesis Owusu has already mastered his sound with confidence, and managed to effortlessly turn a fusion of soul, hip hop and punk into one of the most emotional and captivating albums in the modern age. I have no doubt he will reinvent himself for his next album, but regardless of which direction he takes it in, I can only hope it's half as brilliant as Smiling with No Teeth.
Fav Tracks: The Other Black Dog, Waitin' On Ya, Whip Cracker, Smiling with No Teeth, Drown, Bye Bye