I trust that others will write here about more significant aspects of THEESatisfaction and their swelling career: their context in Seattle and general hiphop history, their way of mixing song with rapping, their use of samples, how their rapping sounds more sibilant than most hiphop (more percussive), their relationship (personal and professional) with Shabazz Palaces—and how, as they rap, their "melanin is relevant." But my favorite thing about awE naturalE is its abrupt-but-fluid song structures (or anti-structures). Their best tracks don't build or fade—they drop straight in and out of their rich galactic blues, built of hand claps, modulating voices, and shimmering, bashing bass. Each one is like diving into a deep, swirling river of paisley, staying underwater for three minutes, and jumping back out again. Listening to awE naturalE is immersion. BRENDAN KILEY
There is no filler. There is no fat. awE naturalE wastes not one second in its 32:24 running time, and there is an arresting beauty in this economy. Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire are instrumental in the record, but the beats and production of awE naturalE also recall that early '90s sea change in hiphop when jazz flowed into the music and, for a time, dominated the former rock 'n' roll and soul influences. Still, the sound looks to the future as well. Charles Mudede and others call this new sound Afrofuturistic, and it's cosmopolitan and global, daring and confident.
The words are as invigorating as the instrumentals. "I'm the bitch on the side," they repeat on "Bitch," and the way they take the negative power of that word, smash it on the ground, and stomp it to pieces before your eyes is a grand thing to hear. GRANT BRISSEY
"QueenS" is easily my favorite song on awE naturalE. The intro nicely asks you to "Leave your face at the door/Turn off your swag and check your bag." This is Mission Impossible for too many female musicians in 2012. Lady Gaga is made of nothing but swag. I read somewhere recently that a music critic was surprised she didn't take home a Grammy. If the Grammys were fashion awards, she'd sweep the floor with 'em. But the Grammys are about the music, not the swagger. I had renewed faith in them this year after Adele—who had to publicly respond to fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld's "fat" comments—took home six awards, because people really did fall in love with that "Rolling in the Deep" song. It takes bigger balls to make your art without putting it in a shiny package. Nineteen- seventies punk legend Patti Smith wasn't afraid to go au naturel, both in her appearance and her voice—her vocal range was limited yet so distinctly powerful.
THEESatisfaction have found their voice, and they intentionally shed the trappings of our image-obsessed mainstream culture. It's not easy, especially for women, who are always first critiqued on appearance. But like in "QueenS": "You've got to act to get the facts/Livin' in a world that's kind of wack." KELLY O
In the middle of the song "Sweat," there are 32 "uhhs." They come in a row, every one like the last, in a repeated motion like a wave or a record skip. The voice is female, or, actually, it is probably two voices, but the harmony is so intertwined that it's like when multiple colors blend into a single new one, or body parts get confused under blankets. Every "uhh" is a delay of gratification. The tension builds, subtly, for an entire third of the three-minute song. Rhymes are laid on top of the hold, something about anticipation and possession and obsession, but delivered coolly: You are the one being stroked; the rapper is doing the stroking. When she says, "Anticipation of a bite from the apple of yes," those are the magic words.
The sexy groove kicks back in, the irresistible bass line restarts like an engine catching, the horn line resurges—these horns from the 1970s, from someplace where funk and soft rock meet—and you are finally released back into the sway of the song. But "Sweat" owns you for a minute. JEN GRAVES
Yesterday, I ran into a man on Third Avenue and Pine Street—or rather, he smacked into me while alighting from a bus. He was dressed in a business suit and shiny shoes; I was wearing glorified pajamas and a serious hangover. "Bitch," he mouthed.
I took out my earbuds. "Excuse me?"
"Watch where the fuck you're going, please," he said.
"You watch where you're going. I had the right of way."
"Over a bus?" he said condescendingly, looking me up and down. "I think not."
"Wow," I replied, "I'm going to assume you're having a shit day and be the mature one here and walk away before I tell you to go fuck yourself."
"Bitch," he repeated as I did just that.
"Bitch" (the song) puts a wiggle in your ass while you walk. It's a short, strutty song, a reminder that being called a bitch is not an insult—it's a sign that a woman knows how to speak up for herself. I am the bitch on the side. CIENNA MADRID
Sometime in the summer of 1997, we as a culture passed the point where it was possible for a white guy with a guitar to completely blow our minds. There wasn't a particular moment—although I'm sure that Candlebox had something to do with it—but it was more like rock 'n' roll quietly passed away in its sleep, after a very long illness. Everything after that was pure impersonation.
My point in all this is not to make awE naturalE out to be a milestone, the way some people drool all over The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. awE naturalE is built on a lot of hiphop that's come before—you can hear Lupe Fiasco and PM Dawn and a bunch of other influences embedded into every track—but it's certainly the moment when I noticed a metamorphosis, a passing of a certain kind of torch. Hiphop has matured from a genre into a sort of container. You don't have to be a straight boy anymore, or spend any amount of time talking about how great or rich you are. You can just stick your experiences inside and let it tell your story, no matter what your story is.
These songs feel like an important statement: Hiphop, gradually, has moved from telling to showing. And suddenly, all those middle-aged rappers who spent their 20s telling us about how dangerous they are now look like the silly little poofy-haired tight-pants buttrockers they themselves replaced. PAUL CONSTANT
They represent a fresh, unlikely hiphop paradigm: Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White are out lesbians (a minuscule minority in hiphop history) who don't use their sexual orientation as a gimmick/selling point or as a hammer to bludgeon listeners with a rote agenda. They lead and inspire by being fantastic, distinctive musicians, lyricists, and vocalists. No skits: Praise the lord of rap, no skits. Erik Blood: His sinuous bass lines undergird THEESatisfaction's tracks with subtle sublimity. His mixing really brings out the duo's innately lush spaciness. And his arrangement of "QueenS" is genius, sounding simultaneously like 1960s girl-group ebullience and soulquarian futurism. Tendai Maraire: The Shabazz Palaces member's percussion accents lend unassuming ballast to THEESatisfaction's lean, lovely jams. The music is smart as fuck: As with Shabazz Palaces' Black Up, awE naturalE stretches conventional ideas of what rap songs can be. THEESatisfaction fluidly shift from rigorous rapping to soulful torch singing to jazzy crooning with natural awesomeness. Irons's drums on "God": She taps out an idiosyncratic beat behind guest rapper Ishmael Butler, and the whole track is an oddly gentle avant-garde-jazz vortex. Album bookends, "awE" and "naturalE," sound like prime-time jazz-fusion instrumentals from deepest 1973: And that's a bold move for hiphop artists to make in 2012—or any year. DAVE SEGAL
Invitingly cool, Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White slink onto the stage like they just showed up at their own party, which they sort of did. We're at the Sub Pop showcase at SXSW, a week out from the release of awE naturalE, and a comfortably toasted gaggle presses toward the stage to watch these "queens of the stoned age." As they open with what sounds like some brand-new music (Cat beaming warmly, cooing; Stas licking off her newest, icy-precise rap), the patrons of the Red 7 try to catch the beat. THEESatisfaction sway and bounce, step and shake their arms and legs to the jazzy African polyrhythms—their movements providing the key, the codex, a primer on how to move to their interstellar diaspora funk. I used to love watching awkward Seattle crowds at their shows trying to do that physical math, their hips and shoulders not quite adding it up right, some faces registering puzzlement. Here, tonight, the be-laminated throng locks in, hanging on Stasia's stark and poetic pro-blackitolism, lifted on Cat's cosmic self-examinations, their groove caught in full. "You better bring yourself," they intone, casually profound. In an art form where women, especially black ones, are very much the "Endangered Species" Ice Cube once talked about, where the archetypes for expression are increasingly tired and staid, THEESatisfaction refamiliarize us with theirs: the Queens Supreme, the source, the cradle of civilization. Welcome home. LARRY MIZELL JR.
There's nothing like having the perfect score to accompany that uniquely Pacific Northwest collective near-orgasmic endorphin rush we get on the first day of "spring," the day when everyone's suddenly wearing shorts and dresses even though it's only 55 degrees, and everyone's giddily talking to complete strangers on the street or in the checkout line, and even dogs are smiling. When I first listened to awE naturalE, I thought it was maybe too strange for me; I didn't feel an immediate connection. But today, a little sunlight streamed in my window the very second I pressed play, and it all came into focus. This "spring," I'm busting out awE naturalE's "QueenS" on shorts-and-smiles day. Bright, fierce, and containing the repeated lines "Whatever you do, don't funk with my groove" and "Sweat through your cardigan," I can think of no better soundtrack to our city's group sungasm. The beat is sexy, and the mood is gold-lit and chilled-out, like only the PNW can do. Listening to it on repeat, I feel like I'm already making daisy chains in the park or drinking on a boat. I can't wait. ANNA MINARD
awE naturalE comes out March 27 on Sub Pop. THEESatisfaction perform March 27 at Queen Anne Easy Street Records (6 pm, free, all ages) and March 29 at Neumos (8 pm, $10, 21+).