Santogold: pop's new Gwen Stefani

By now the buzz on Santi White, the 32-year-old Brooklyn singer making her debut as Santogold, has grown deafening. Her résumé gets particular play among the four-star accolades: She held an A&R gig at Epic, sang anonymously amid Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse on producer Mark Ronson's album Version, and received writer's cred on the new Ashlee Simpson record.

Amid all the name-dropping, critics are also touting Santogold as the next M.I.A. The friends share producers, a love of soundsystem-rattling bass tones, and — judging by Santogold's bob — hair stylists. No doubt Maya Arulpragasam provided an example of how to mash together disparate influences. But despite these obvious sonic similarities, comparisons between these culture-clashing artists remain superficial.

Santogold's less-obvious (but more resonant) precursor is the gold-fixated, genre-omnivorous Gwen Stefani. They share roots in pop-punk, with Santogold's recording career kicking off in ska band Stiffed. Onstage, these women command uniformed entourages; Santogold arrives flanked by two female dancers dressed like recruits from Public Enemy's Security of the First World, looking ready to mow down Gwen's own rank of Harajuku Girls. Both also surround themselves with high-profile producers. But while Stefani can bankroll the likes of Dr. Dre and the Neptunes, Santogold opts instead for the priceless cachet provided by Philly cheese mashup DJ Diplo, the U.K.'s Switch, and the late Disco D (the producer's sludgy, dubbed-out "Shove It" only hints at his upper-echelon potential, had he not taken his own life last year).

Santogold: next-wave leopard print.
Santogold: next-wave leopard print.

The flashy newcomer and the chart-topping vet have another parallel in the eclectic styles informing their debuts. On Love.Angel.Music.Baby., Stefani switched from bubblegum pop to cheerleader stomp; Santogold is similarly pliant on her self-titled disc, moving from new wave to indie rock to booming dancehall. No Doubt's next-wave ska even sneaks into Santogold, which is grounded on the bounce and jerk of 2-Tone, slinky rocksteady, and all things Jamaican. Songs like the uptempo "You'll Find a Way" and "Say Aha" buoy Santogold's muscular rasp and throaty squeak, sounding at once sleek, choppy, rocking, and frenetic.

But Santogold digs deeper than Stefani with her wholehearted embrace of dancehall and its twitchy hybrids, effortlessly floating atop its titanic bass tones. Diplo and Switch recently worked in Jamaica with top-tier toasters like Elephant Man and Ms. Thing, so their métiers run deep in the form, particularly on a swampy track like Santogold's "Unstoppable." The equally fierce "Creator" mixes thundering bass drops, robotic pongs, skipping-CD vocal tics, and high squelches, with White sounding closest to the machine-gun clip diction of M.I.A. as she meditates on conceiving music: "Me, I'm a creator/Thrill is to make it up/The rules I break got me a place/Up on the radar."

She's similarly acute on opening track "L.E.S. Artistes," another take on the creative process. Here Santogold's shape-shifting propensities are on full display, emulating not only Stefani, but also empowered females like Karen O and Siouxsie Sioux. But the most striking difference between her and Stefani also manifests in this song. Whereas Stefani's words trade solely in superficial "blinging" inanities, Santogold digs deeper. Railing at the absurd social posturing that entangles said New York neighborhood against a backdrop of clocking snares and pinging guitar lines, White sneers and stands tall. As the chorus builds to an incandescent release, White realizes that "it will be worth what I give up/If I could stand up mean for all the things that I believe." From atop such a pop peak, Santogold roars, too empowered to remain just another hollaback girl.

 
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