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Review: Die Antwoord, ‘TEN$ION’

Die Antwoord
SPIN Rating: 4 of 10
Release Date: February 07, 2012
Label: ZEF Recordz

Once again, let’s give a warm welcome to Ninja, the meth-head Situation, and his zombie-Gelfling homeslice, Yo-Landi Vi$$er! After a brief Cape Town hiatus spent avoiding nutrition, wearing adult Underoos, and fokken around wif homies, the ugly faces of South Africa’s rap-rave crew Die Antwoord have returned to present their second Stateside full-length, which they’ve promoted, poker-faces intact, as having “much higher” “gangster levels” than $O$, their zany 2010 debut.

The self-released TEN$ION comes two years to the month after the Boing Boing website posted Die Antwoord’s “Enter the Ninja” video — a freak-rap sensory overload of demented Keith Haring night terrors, yin-yang vomit, and possible criminal longing that arrived like a Super Soaker ambush, one giant targeted WTF so laughably serious and seriously laughable that it could’ve been a Craig Ferguson sketch. But no, upon further YouTube inspection, it appeared that Mr. Ninja was a self-styled carny creature with prison-quality tattoos and lip whiskers resembling dried chocolate-vanilla-swirl ice cream. The elvish Ms. Vi$$er shape-shifted between a mulleted urchin tomboy and an eyebrowless snatched-boy seductress. There was also a phantom third member, producer DJ Hi-Tek, portrayed online by various speechless figures.

What everyone asked: Are they for real? What everyone meant: Which one of us is laughing? Everyone was certainly laughing when the gangly protagonist of “Enter the Ninja” bragged to the camera, “Look at me, now! All up in the Interweb. Worldwide!” So faux-naïf! But not really. Ninja had a plan; this was the world’s biggest stage. Interscope signed the act the next month. M.I.A., ever a lover of seemingly ill-advised provocation, gave them daps. Diplo produced a track. The Guggenheim included a Die Antwoord video in a curated YouTube exhibition, effectively hailing the project as high art.

The difference between Die Antwoord and their musical meme descendants — Rebecca Black (who emerged the same month a year later), Kreayshawn, Odd Future, Lana Del Rey — is the former’s sense of scale. Black was an accident that happened in the backyard. OF boss Tyler, the Creator’s initial fantasy podium was the VMAs. Kreayshawn’s cityscape was big rooms full of bad bitches. Lana Del Rey, a grand accessory, has most certainly spent every day of her life dreaming of being an Oscar date. Die Antwoord, love them or hate them, have something bigger in mind, with far more entrances and exits, many of them Looney Toons trapdoors, perhaps. They want to perform, they want to transform, they want to pretend, they want to mock, they want to make gas-station attendants into superheroes, they want you to see how stupid this all is, they want to manufacture limited-edition toys with giant penises. They want to prove that it’s easier than ever to manipulate the medium while still in their pajamas.

And, so, this group doesn’t make songs, they make soundtracks. They aren’t futuristic MCs, they’re VJs for the inbred apocalypse. Their raison d’etre isn’t “music,” it’s writint, producint, and starrint in EDM-camp scores for Cremaster-meets-Hoarders sizzle tapes. Which makes it difficult to evaluate TEN$ION on its own terms. But for argument’s sake, let’s pretend we’re judges on The Voice and give it a blind audition. Opener “Never Le Nkemise” begins innocuously enough, with a distant string section conjuring one of those Nature Sounds CDs. But not even a minute elapses before our Slim Shady stand-in host interrupts: “I’m INDEEEEESTRUCTIBLE! / Gangsta numbah ONNNNE!” The transition is as smooth as a mugging; like the honey badger, he don’t care. “IMA MUDDAFUKKA NINJA,” he sneers over dubstep zerberts. “NEEEEN-JAAAAAAH!” Oh my, a cousin of Jar Jar Binks has evidently stolen the microphone.

He won’t give it back either. Next, amid the relentless techno strobe of “I Fink U Freeky,” he busts in like Steven Tyler slamming through Run-DMC’s practice-space wall, only to shill for Beats by Dre headphones (?) and show off his House of Pain training (“JUMP MUDDAFUKKA JUMP!“). And there he is again, two songs later, among the arcade-blip staccato of “Fatty Boom Boom,” taking shots at, uh, Vanilla Ice (“No, I do not want to ‘Stop, collaborate or listen'”), plus threatening to whip out his masculine parts and urinate on something indecipherable. Officer Big Mac is more intimidating. Speed-bags have won better fights.

This isn’t a record — it’s a thumping collection of skits. $0$, to its credit, was remarkably consistent, cheesy-techno jujitsu, an anime score conjoining Alvin and the Chipmunks with the Knife. TEN$ION, by contrast, hews a little too close to the fake-gangster thing to be nearly as fun. And of Rosemary’s Baby-talk falsetto of Yo-Landi is as steady as a hopscotch game; on the terribly unsexy “Hey Sexy,” her shrill bongo-drilled sputtering gets so grating thqt it evokes Liz Phair’s interstate-pileup “Bollywood.” Ninja, for his part, beatboxes like an asthmatic with a mouthful of instant mashed potatoes.

There’s also an ongoing Strip Club at the End of the Universe theme. The electric-piano abduction and vamping-synth strut of “Fok Julle Naaiers,” which loosely translates to “Fuck All Y’all,” seems designed for Jabba the Hutt’s champagne room. Likewise, “So What?” sounds like “Ain’t Nothing But a G Thang” remade for the Star Wars cantina. Yo-Landi provides inhuman sex noises on the synth-organ gem “U Make a Ninja Wanna Fuck” (Ladies, cover your drinks), a far better work of techno-wash than it ever should be.

Here’s a generous theory: TEN$ION, as the conceptual work of fictional characters, is deliberately bad. A strong case for this is made with “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez,” a profanely discomfiting track, originally tacked onto the end of “Fok Julle Naaiers,” in which DJ Hi-Tek becomes a straw man for Die Antwoord’s Interscope break-up: A robo-demon voice threatens to “fokk you in the ass” and “eat your asshole alive” while tossing around the word “faggot.” The slur has been cited as one reason for the act’s recent break with the label; elsewhere, Ninja justifies using the word on the basis that the DJ is gay.

With this in mind, let’s consider the possibility that this is all ruthless white-rap pastiche. That it’s calling bullshit by being bullshit, and everything from the Everlast nod to the Rob Van Winkle diss to presenting Interscope with the F-word are directly referencing some uncomfortable honky precedent, whether it be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II soundtrack or implications of the word “ninja” or the Eminem/Elton hug. It’s far-fetched, sure, and maybe a cop-out, but is there any evidence that they’re trying to be good at music? Like Ninja says: “What happened to all the coo’ rappers from back in the day / Now all ‘dese rappers sound exactly the same / It’s like one big inbred fuckfest.” Wait, what? Okay, no.