Before you read another word, I highly recommend that you download or stream DoNormaal's second album, Third Daughter, and listen to this masterpiece of indie, gritty post-hip-hop at least three times.
If you are already familiar with the album, and if, like me, you can't get enough of it, then let's get right to it.
The first thing that needs to be said about DoNormaal, a Seattle-based MC whose born-name is Christianne Karefa-Johnson, is that she has a style of rapping that's at once mesmerizing and original. Often the two attributes do not meet in one rapper. The usual case is that a talented MC will have either the gift of impeccable swing or the gift of lyrical innovation.
DoNormaal swings effortlessly as she constructs dense rhyme patterns that negotiate an unusual emotional space for a hip-hop artist—between anger and hurt. The anger in her work relates to her social situation (a black woman in a racist and misogynistic society), but this anger is tempered by hurt that is profoundly personal (her childhood tragedies, the challenges her family faced). As a consequence, the mood of her raps on Third Daughter is that of a slow or controlled burning.
However, DoNormaal's live shows are actually lively. When she performs—as she will at Queer Bar on June 30 and at Columbia City Theater on July 13—she wants people to dance and not sit around watching her rap. The personality on the record is not the same as the one on the stage. DoNormaal on Third Daughter is serious and introspective, but the one in front of people is extroverted and wants to entertain, even if at times the raps are convoluted or hard to understand, which brings me to another aspect of her rapping style.
It's often difficult to catch the meaning of DoNormaal's raps, and this might lead many to mistakenly categorize her as a mumble rapper. But there's a major difference between DoNormaal and, say, the defining figures of this very popular and much- maligned rap movement (Future, Kodak Black, Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, and so on). What must be understood is that DoNormaal does not complicate the content of her raps for the sake of obscurity, but for creativity. Meaning, with her it is instead a matter of commitment to the richness of ideas and words. In the way a good writer makes his/her reader a participant in the creative act, DoNormaal makes the listener a partner in her creative process.
With mainstream mumble rap, on the other hand, the mumbling is just that, mumbling. And if you manage to pull out some morsel of meaning from that mumbling, you almost always find the effort was a complete waste of time. You know: The rapper is saying he wants to fuck a hot chick right now, or he wants us to know he owns a very fast car, or he wants to spend lots of money in a club. But if you pull the meaning out of a line from one of Third Daughter's 19 tracks, it's bound to be political or deeply personal.
For example, if you stop dancing for a moment and listen closely to the words in the track "Emotional," you will catch this line: "I'm sorry, Dad, that's not right, it's wack / I'm so sorry that you're never coming back." This is about the father DoNormaal lost as a child. She knows he is "never coming back." Death is final. She also knows we are all in the same mortal boat. All of us have and will lose our loved ones. All of us are haunted by ghosts. DoNormaal's ghosts haunt the album.
"My godmom always tells me about the beautiful juxtaposition of mine and my twin sister's laughing, smiling, silly baby selves in the aftermath of our father's death," says DoNormaal, whose long braids and eyebrows are bleached.
"Just the fact that there were two twin babies running around in that time represented a joy and a liveliness and a legacy continued. Humans have always been vulnerable to sudden death of all sorts of circumstances. And in today's climate, even the healthiest, safest, most protected, and most privileged of people can be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and lose their lives to terrible acts of violence by citizens and also the state."
Sorry, but this does not sound like the mind of a mainstream mumbler.
Another way DoNormaal is distinctive is she's not really a Seattle rapper—or, put another way, she's not part of the movement of 206 hip-hop that begins in the early 1990s and definitively ends in the middle of the present decade with the stunning success of Macklemore.
DoNormaal missed all of that and arrived in Seattle at a time when the city's underground hip-hop scene was in decline (around 2013). Another aspect of her non-Seattleness is her lack of anything that resembles 206 pride. "It's just another day to me, it's just another flight back / Fuck Seattle, man, I wanna fly back, I wanna fly home," she raps on the track "Emotional." Or, "Guess I finally caught my legs Seatown shit blues," she raps on "Gold Rooster."
DoNormaal is like a seed that's blown into the city from somewhere far away, found a spot to settle, and is now growing and spreading in the midst of long-established and native plants.
DoNormaal was not raised in cloudy Seattle but in sunny Southern California, and much of what she raps about is drawn from experiences in that region.
"I grew up with my mother, my grandparents, and my four siblings," she says, "and I spent a lot of time daydreaming in the sun. Southern California is a huge part of my heart and my soul and therefore my music. The Inland Empire where I grew up is a weird and interesting place, desert suburbia in the shadow of Los Angeles. It's beautiful and homey in some places and scraggly-looking but still homey in others. Growing up there felt like desolate longing via a keen awareness of Hollywood and our disconnection from it. I think being outsiders and having those off-kilter origins along with a pop-culture sensibility due to our proximity to LA makes for a good, interesting style and perspective."
Before moving to Seattle six years ago, DoNormaal studied poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, which is north of the Bronx. She read the works of Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Sylvia Plath. Plath's poem "Lady Lazarus" made a particularly deep impression on her. The work is part of what Plath scholars categorize as her "Holocaust poems," and it concerns the horror of living in a world that can produce monsters like the Nazis. (The poem was published two years after Plath killed herself—following a few failed attempts.)
In the poem, a woman explains how she does not want to be Lazarus. She wants to die and never come back. But it seems the world will not let her go. She keeps returning to "the same place, the same face, the same brute." These resurrections have made her an artist of death. She writes, famously, in "Lady Lazarus":
The poem has DoNormaal written all over it. We hear, in line after line, the hurt that defines a politically fused existentialism, which is exactly the kind of existentialism you will encounter on the DoNormaal track "Grieves":
DoNormaal's next album, which is currently under construction and which she plans to call Yippee, will expand on her existential, Plathian side. (I would argue her political side draws from Langston Hughes, and her raps are a blend of Hughes's smoldering anger and Plath's almost whimsically expressed horror.) The album, she explains, will be about death, how we deal with it, and how we ultimately have to decide how to live with it.
But it's not a depressing work, and the tracks she shared with me can hardly be called depressing. The beats are certainly less pop-driven than those on Third Daughter or first album Jump or Die. But the emotional range on this record is expanded from hurt to a feeling that approximates exhilaration, particularly on the track "ConquestLOUD." But, again, the theme on this track is dark. What exactly are we conquering? Not death. But a space to be joyful in a world that's filled with horrible people, horrible events, and meaningless deaths.
"I named it Yippee," DoNormaal says, "because 'yippee' is a phrase that can be used to express both genuine joy and sarcasm at something that might not be all that great. And I am really invested in bringing our childhoods into our adult lives and being playful, even when things look bleak. Laughing in the face of danger."