"The future of music, today" - Rolling Stone 10 Artists To Watch. "Singing in a haunting, sensual wail...she adds a layer of softness to an unusual mix of synthesizers, dance hall rhythms, and percolating new wave" - NY Times. "Future-pop princess...next big thing" - Spin. "Santi White is Santogold...the collaborators and players may change, the sounds may shift, but at the center is one woman's indelible vision" - The Fader. SXSW / Coachella shows, 2007 tours with Bjork, M.I.A., songs featured in Entourage, Grey's Anatomy, Grand Theft Auto.
Review by Marisa Brown
Santogold, the collaboration between Santi White and former Stiffed bandmate John Hill, first began receiving notice in late 2007, thanks mostly to the release of the single "Creator," which seemed to point White in the direction of an M.I.A. knockoff. The debut full-length, however, shows Santogold to be a unique group, one that pulls equally from dub, pop-punk, hip-hop, electro, and rock without succumbing to the archetypes of any. Much of this is because of the contributions from Hill, who adds plenty of guitars and warm keyboards, encouraging White to fill out the songs, the verses, and the hooks, with her rich Gwen Stefani-meets-Janelle Monáe voice. "I'm a Lady," despite the fact it could belong in the late-'90s pop canon, is delightfully catchy and inviting; "L.E.S. Artistes" sounds like a fuller, brighter Tegan and Sara song; and "My Superman" is the urban 21st century's version of a sultry jazz standard. In fact, Hill is so instrumental in creating the diversity and lushness of sound that the pieces in which he doesn't contribute, or contributes very little, are markedly different. Switch, the producer responsible for M.I.A.'s Kala, shows off his impressive beat-making skills on "Creator," which features White doing the singsongy rap that has helped make Maya Arulpragasam so popular ("Me, I'm a creator, thrill is to make it up/The rules I break got me a place up on the radar"), and the Diplo-helmed "Unstoppable" marries dub and Hollertronix electronica nicely. These are the exceptions to the overall sound, however (and their very rarity makes them so much more appealing, and evidence of the work of a complete artist, not one trying to follow the coattails of another), because most of Santogold lacks that jagged angularity that drives M.I.A.'s records. Instead, the album is informed by pop and good humor, the importance of melody and structure never overshadowed by rhythm and dancefloor-worthiness. This is music that looks outward at the pan-continental landscape while staying firmly adherent to and respectful of its deeply American roots; it's the emerging -- and hopeful -- face of the new millennium, and an altogether shining accomplishment.
[Downtown/Lizard King; 2008]
Santi White used to work in A&R, which gives her put-downs on debut single "Creator" a professional air: "Sit tight I know what you are/ Mad bright but you ain't no star." As Santogold, White is putting her knowledge of star quality into practical effect. At its best, her album's cross-genre confidence is dazzling, combining dub, new wave, and hip-hop to create some of the year's freshest pop. At its worst, it feels annoyingly overthought.
The central questions of Santogold's first single, "Creator" (who's real and who's fake?), seem to nag at her, but its stunning follow-up, "L.E.S. Artistes", returns to the topic of creativity, hype, and integrity, with the singer sinking her teeth into Lower East Side poseurs and wannabes. White's also walking a line herself: She's a professional songwriter, and talked to the BBC earlier this year about writing for Ashlee Simpson. "It's like two different hats that I have to wear. It's like the difference between writing fiction and writing ad copy. It's like a formula versus your art."
That's fair enough. It's not unlike the age-old compromise of film directors-- a movie for the studio, and a movie for me. The problem is that when you compartmentalize formula and art, you risk creating a formula for your art, defining it by what it isn't rather than what it is. Santogold's second half seems to fall into this trap, with a series of tepid dub-influenced tracks that kick her obvious pop gifts-- melody, hooks, and bounce-- to the curb. On "Anne", the usually fiery White sounds muted and apathetic; "Starstruck" is a patience-eroding mess of keyboard fuzz; and the grating "Unstoppable" feels like being lectured by a parrot.
"Unstoppable" is also the track which sounds closest to White's friend and collaborator M.I.A. Hers is the name you'll think of first when you hear Santogold: They share co-producers Diplo and Switch, as well as a taste for bass and a forthright vocal style. The more you listen, though, the shallower the resemblance seems: Santi White can do M.I.A.'s tongue-swallowing bark if she wants to, but she's just as comfortable with the gentler registers her melodies require. And while M.I.A. uses global club music to project a future pop blueprint, Santogold explores how they integrate with renegade music of the past.
For much of Santogold, White is channeling and recombining a series of indie icons: Debbie Harry, Kim Deal, Ari Up, Joe Strummer, and Karen O. On "My Superman" she captures the imperious swoop of Siouxsie Sioux and drapes it over the kind of stern electro Goldfrapp used to make. "I'm a Lady" marries ska-pop verses to a strutting Elastica chorus. "Lights Out" finds a fascinating middle ground between the Pixies and the Go-Go's.
This could turn the record into a spot-the-reference game, but White glues it together first with the backing harmonies she uses to sweeten most tracks, and second with her love of space and echo. The early 1980s fascinate her, and I'd guess a big part of why has to do with the era's cross-breeding of rock, punk, and reggae. A trio of songs-- "You'll Find a Way", "Shove It", and "Say Aha"-- evoke that moment when rock's aggression met reggae's drive and depth, and it makes for Santogold's most thrilling sequence. "Say Aha" in particular is perfect new wave bubblegum-- 2 Tone keyboards, phaser effects, a stomp-ready chorus, and a surf guitar solo to finish. As if to ward off accusations of revivalism, it leads into "Creator", a grimy arcade funk jam that's Santogold's heaviest and most successful electronic move.
"Creator" has already soundtracked more than one commercial, and if "L.E.S. Artistes", Santogold's best song, gets similar exposure it could be inescapable. It already sounds huge, with its soaring chorus that should resonate with anyone facing change: "I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up." In Santi White's case "it" is stardom, and "L.E.S. Artistes" might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The irony of this song about compromise is that, like the other great tracks on Santogold, it shows exactly why she's in demand with Ashlee or Lily Allen: She's a consummate pop songwriter. Santogold might try to separate formula and art, but her album catches fire when she blasts that distinction into irrelevance.
-Tom Ewing, May 07, 2008