I'm a hip-hop head. It's not all of who I am, but it's my one true love, and literally my job. Give me an hour and I'll happily spend it listening to PRhyme, give me two hours and I'll detail every Red Hot Chili Peppers sample in a rap song.
So maybe that's why I'm borderline embarrassed with the amount of spins I've given "Gangsta" over the past two weeks. The gym, the mechanic, even my grandma's spot, no matter how many times I blast Kat Dahlia's debut single it doesn't lose that wow factor. In fact, just yesterday I was caught getting turnt up in the cereal aisle. I can't help it, her passion gets to me in a way I can't shake.
But as I listened to her new album, My Garden, and listened, and listened, I just couldn't shake the hip-hop head voice telling me that I was listening to a pop album; how dare you call yourself a rap nerd when this is the album you've been listening to all week? Don't you know "pop" is the most terrifying word imaginable to a serious music lover?
It's a voice I struggle with, the voice that I most openly battled listening to Taylor Swift's album, but you know what? Fuck that voice. Yes, My Garden might be a pop album, but if so it's a great pop album. In fact, it's great in a way that defies easy labels, and the main reason I hesitate to place Dahlia alongside any of the current crop of pop princesses is her vocal chops.
Singers like Ariana Grande and Swift are born for pop music. They can hit some high notes, but for the most part it's all about the light, fuzzy and welcoming; flowers, candy, kittens. Not Dahlia. The energy and vibrancy of other pop heavyweights is in her music, but she has some more depth, some grit to her voice that can be dangerously intoxicating; it's pop with menace.
The most shining example is the album's closing cut, "Just Another Dude." "Just Another Dude"? Really? The title sounds like the sequel to some straight to ABC Family Katherine Heigl movie. But when you press play you'll find it's more Pulp Fiction. Armed with nothing more than her incendiary vocals and a classical guitar, Dahlia ends the album with her most impressive vocal performance. Here, the passion, power, and heartbreak in her voice will floor you. Other pop songs about this very subject feel so bland, so factory made, it makes me wonder if those singers have ever actually been heartbroken. Not Kat. It literally sounds like she was just left at the altar, went home, smoked a pack of cigarettes, poured some scotch and recorded this masterful track. There is nothing here to support her, no synths, no Dr. Luke behind the boards, it's a profoundly personal, brutal song and you feel every single note of it because her voice conveys so much emotion. I had white-knuckles by the end because my fists where clenched so tight. Pop songs might get in your head, they definitely make you dance, but they don't make you feel real emotion; they simply can't give you white knuckles.
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It's that special voice which sets her apart from anyone else making music that borders that fine line between R&B, pop and hip-hop. Even songs that have a more traditional pop instrumental or much that sought after turn-up appeal - "Clocks" and "Lava" come to mind, along with the saint vs. sinner jam "Saturday Sunday" - are given more weight solely through Dahlia's powerful vocals. Even at her most fragile she can still pack a punch; that hook on "My Garden" reminded me of the hook on Shyne's "Bad Boyz." It's that vocal "bite" that gives her the authenticty and special quality so many other pop stars are lacking.
That doesn't mean the entire album is soaked in whiskey, especially when it comes to the more unapolegtically uptempo "Crazy." The 50's-esque, acoustic-splashed beat, lines so cheesy they would make Wisconsin blush (that t-shirt smell line), the whole vibe screams pop. I love it, but if this came on around friends, I'd probably panic a little bit. It definitely induces that feeling when your shuffle tries to blow up your spot; go ahead and blame it on your girl or little sister.
Still though, for the most part the songs on My Garden hit just hard enough to appease my hip-hop heart. "I Think I'm In Love Again" is the best example; you'll try and fight it, but in the end, when the track culminates, it'll be impossible to resist. She can dominate a stripped down track like "Just Another Dude" as easily as she can stand out atop a cascading pop instrumental. In the end, those darker, edgier cuts are much more compelling, but she can certainly handle any style. Her voice, the depth, passion, heart, and range, is the driving force and it's what makes this album special. How many pop albums can you say that about?
Well, aside form "holy fuck Kat Dahlia has it" I didn't really come to any great, paradigm-shift inducing conclusions. I'm still traversing the murky waters of what "genre" even means anymore and Dahlia's album, if anything, left me with more questions than ever (which is definitely a good thing). Maybe an album that blends every genre perfectly just isn't possible; maybe I'm chasing an impossible dream. Or maybe it doesn't even matter at all. The feelings I get from My Garden may never mimic those I get from PRhyme, but similarly, PRhyme can never gives me feelings Kat can. I may forever be stuck in this gray area, but if being stuck here means I can enjoy anything from Tupac to Kat Dahliah, then it's exactly where I want to be.
Fuck a genre. Kat Dahlia's My Garden is good music. Period, and I'm learning how to let that be enough.
[When not writing for DJBooth.net Lucas Garrison can be found eating Chipotle or listening to “College Dropout". You can tweet him your burrito order @LucasDJBooth.]