Santigold has always been in conversation with pop. From top to bottom, in choruses, asides verses and entire songs, her first album overflowed with militant statements about artistic integrity and authenticity. Master of My Make-Believe, her moody second album, was more fixated on the roiling world that artists live in, but it wasn’t a departure from form. Buried beneath and between the songs about disaffected youth, a crumbling America and lurking pirates were truculent taunts mocking the way the pop landscape had morphed in Santigold’s image, overflowing with artists whose eccentricity was merely embroidered in their fast-fashion seams rather than embedded in their artistic DNA. 99¢ draws from that same well of repulsion and scorn, but it also pushes against it, decrying the misery of the contemporary music marketplace, but still clamoring for a place on the sales rack.
Denouncing the market while peddling a commercial product should be a tough balancing act, but Santigold pulls it off by fully embracing the contradiction. The album cover features her shrink-wrapped in plastic, surrounded by miscellaneous belongings and marred by a gleaming yellow sticker sarcastically declaring the market value of her life and her work: 99 cents. But though Santigold is clearly dissatisfied with the undervaluation of her music, the cover is also playful, brimming with color and style and panache.
That sense of sunny cheekiness radiates throughout the album, especially on songs that openly accept established pop paradigms. “Banshee” is pure bubblegum, bright synths swirling around crisp percussion, short verses flowing into stratospheric builds and meteoric drops. But then the song is also genuinely about the mythical banshee, harbinger of death. “Let me keep preaching to my choir/ Will you take me down or push me higher,” Santigold belts, begging for the banshee to leave her shoulder, for the market and its narrow demands to let her make music in peace.
“All I Got,” a delicious helping of candied new wave, is just as pleading. “I should ask, but don’t wanna know/ How you get something from nothing at all/ Built an empire for yourself/ Don’t take this personal, go to hell,” Santigold snarls, dropping her voice to a throaty deadpan. It’s the catchiest critique of music streaming ever penned, especially since it could apply to both streaming services and labels (the latter are secretly just as responsible for the devaluation of music as the former).
When she’s not winking, Santigold spends her time on the verge of tears, forgoing subversion and coded language and speaking frankly. “Chasing Shadows” is among the most forthright songs of her career. The verses are rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness, an inner monologue at its most intimate, hurtfully honest. “I’m living on the shelf” she confesses, deeply aware of her position in the pop hierarchy. “At least someone knows where I am,” she assures herself at the end of the bridge, her falsetto fading away. On “Run the Races,” a patient, fizzing ballad, she professes a profound fear of the future. “It might not be safe, but I’m going out there,” she cries, her voice compressed into a lonely wail.
Although the bulk of the album oscillates between sarcasm and sincerity, the most fully realized songs transcend that spectrum entirely. “Rendezvous Girl,” a dreamy synthpop elegy, is beautifully produced, but the mix is cacophonous, each element tumbling over the other in crisp yet confusing detail. It feels like a sonic paywall, willed glitchiness as the last bastion against an encroaching market. “Outside the War” is just as abrasive, featuring scratchy bird calls, sinister knocks and formless howls that slash right through the middle of the song like crazed fans bum-rushing a live show. Santigold has been experimenting with texture and discord and harmony since she was Santogold, but on 99¢ these experiments take on a new urgency, the songs’ roughness doing what sarcasm too often can’t: instigate change.
99¢ isn’t a perfect album (“Can’t Get Enough Of Myself” is about three Drake albums, two Broad City seasons and one Chainsmokers single too late), but its thrill is that Santigold still seems to be having fun. Three albums in, from creator, to master, to mom, her titles have only accrued. The market value of her #brand might not follow suit, but even as her conversation with pop has become increasingly one-sided, she’s refused to be silenced, as if she knows something the market doesn’t.
Only time will tell, but perhaps she’s not the only one with the banshee on her shoulder.