Title: Smiling With No Teeth
Artist: Genesis Owusu
Genre: R&B / Hip Hop / Soul
Released: 5 March 2021
1. On the Move!
2. The Other Black Dog
4. Waitin' on Ya
5. Don't Need You
7. Gold Chains
8. Smiling with No Teeth
9. I Don't See Colour
10. Black Dogs!
11. Whip Cracker
13. A Song About Fishing
14. No Looking Back
15. Bye Bye
Smiling With No Teeth
"I've read the story of the two black dogs
Society's stray and the stray's hound
Caressing and stabbing each other with a technician's touch
To many cries have cried with no tears
To many nets cast into fishless lakes
To many smiles cracked with no teeth"
Rarely does a debut album from a solo artist come with such precision and confidence as it has with Genesis Owusu’s dynamic and passionate “Smiling with No Teeth”. At only 22 years old, Kofi Owusu-Ansah has established an incredible foundation for himself, blending styles of soul, hip-hop, R&B, and Jazz together, in a vivid and electrifying fusion. And although he has released EPs and singles in the past, it’s this first full length offering that will undoubtedly solidify him as a defining act of the 2020s. Whether it’s the rich and diverse production from Andrew Klippel and Dave Hammer, or the amazing performative skills and lyricism from Kofi, everything about “Smiling with No Teeth” is absolutely dripping with creativity and craftmanship.
From its opening moments, it’s clear how immense Owusu’s potential is; each track adding more and more flavour to an ever-growing robust stylistic palette. The bar is set insanely high almost instantly, with a streak of fantastic, infectious tracks that dominate the first half of the album. There’s a constant shifting of styles and moods; whether it’s the thumping, danceable groove of ‘The Other Black Dog’, ‘Centrefold’s’ psychedelic, inverted vocal harmonies, or the thick and sensual R&B focused ‘Waitin’ On Ya’; Owusu is constantly and seamlessly pushing his sound in new and exciting directions. And the highlights don’t stop here. In fact, the most impressive part of “Smiling with No Teeth”, is that they don’t stop at all.
There really is not a single weak track on this album. But more importantly, there’s hardly a track here that isn’t incredibly strong. The only song that I’ve found myself glossing over slightly upon relistens is ‘Easy’. This is still a really solid track, but it just comes at an unfortunate spot in the track-list, sitting in-between two much stronger songs; ‘Whip Cracker’, and ‘A Song About Fishing’. Apart from this, however, every moment on “Smiling with No Teeth” is an absolute treat. For an almost hour-long solo debut, that’s an incredible achievement. And the centrepiece of that achievement, is the absolutely amazing overall sound that this record has.
This is just a gorgeous album to listen to. Every single instrumental is so rich and organic, excelling in every area that Owusu chooses to explore. The guitar and bass on the R&B infused tracks, such as ‘These Chains’, and ‘Centrefold; the gentle, piano-accompanied balladry of ‘A Song About Fishing’; or the constantly building psych-rock-inspired ‘Whip Cracker’; all demonstrate just how well he manages to execute every idea he sets out on. And this is furthered by his fantastic vocal performances, which he perfectly matches to each corresponding style, showing an incredible amount of versatility. And this combination of fantastic instrumental and vocal performances results in an album that really feels like lightning in a bottle. I was stunned upon first listen by just how engaging and well-crafted every single moment on here is, and it’s continued to impress me for many listens beyond that. And this is just how the album sounds. The creativity and brilliance of “Smiling with No Teeth” extends even further than this, with some extremely compelling and skilled lyricism throughout from Kofi.
The record kicks off with ‘On the Move!’, an exhilarating introduction, which also functions as the establishing moment for a central theme and symbol of the album: the black dog. In fact, it’s slightly surprising that the album wasn’t named after this very motif; the imagery of black dogs is something that persists throughout the entirety of “Smiling with No Teeth”, being included either explicitly, or referenced in some way, in almost every song here. It gives the record a kind of coherence and narrative akin to that of a concept album, and although it doesn’t quite delve fully into that territory, it ties everything together really well. While it’s never directly explained what the symbolism behind the black dog represents, there are various superstitions associated to them both in literature, and real life, which sit parallel to some of the other themes of the album.
In British folklore, the presence of a black dog is closely affiliated to that of the devil and evil. It’s quite clear in tracks such as ‘Black Dogs!’, that Owusu has adopted the name of the black dog in an aim to expose similar superstitions and stereotypes that are used to uphold racism and bigotry in modern society. Where the black dog has become a symbol of bad luck, evil, and death, despite its complete innocence, people of colour have similarly been the victims of hate for hundreds of years. The hate is entirely baseless, but because it has become so deeply engrained on a societal level, these superstitions have unfortunately been accepted by a disturbing amount of people. This is something Owusu discusses at length in the track ‘I Don’t See Colour’, where he addresses the mindset of stereotyping, and the marginalisation of African Americans, Middle Eastern, and East Asian people, amongst countless other cultures. He addresses some common ‘fears’ that are used to attack people of colour; arguments that are clearly just a manifestation and disguise of blatant racism. And in one of the most potent lyrical moments on the entire album, he flips this argument entirely on its head.
The second verse of the song lists a number of common fallacies that are used to defend and conceal racism, using hasty generalization as a tool to have entire cultures represented by singular, often misinformed, prejudices. He mentions the instant association many people have between Middle Eastern culture and terrorist attacks, as well as the assumption that black people must be involved with drugs and riots. However, he then turns the argument towards the deep history of slavery that white people have had, across numerous cultures and countries.
“When you see the arab man, it's the bombs and flares
When you see the asian man, it’s the yellow scare
When you see the black man, it’s riots and terror
But when I talk about slavery, you weren't there, how convenient”
He then repeats a line from earlier in the song, regarding his actions being reflected by his race rather than his individual self. However, where before it was used as a protest against the ridiculous nature of stereotyping, here it’s instead a form of retaliation; if people of colour must be stereotyped as drug-dealers, terrorists, and rioters, then the white man must be given no lenience in his obvious role as a slaver. It’s an extreme perspective, but a hugely powerful one at the same time, and is just one example of the excellent lyrical skills that Kofi demonstrates throughout the album.
Much of the rest of the record deals with similar themes of racism and white privilege, with the black dog imagery acting as its central motif. But something that remains throughout, despite this, is Kofi’s constant ability to stay afloat and optimistic, even in a society where racial discrimination is so deeply ingrained. This is heard throughout the entire album, but is most apparent during the last stretch of tracks, with ‘A Song About Fishing’, and ‘No Looking Back’. The former of which has Kofi using the metaphor of a fisherman casting a net into a fishless lake, representing his persistence and optimism in the face of great adversity. And this pays off by the end of the track, with him finally spotting an abundance of fish in the distance. The next track, ‘No Looking Back’, feels like a glorious and beautiful celebration of this victory. Even though he’s had to endure a lot of pain over the years, from either personal relationships, or discrimination and hate, he’s still able to pick himself up and keep moving forward. This track is one of the most gorgeous moments on the whole album, including a great trumpet and saxophone section towards the end that feels triumphant and euphoric. It’s extremely admirable, from both a musical level, and also thematically. Owusu is able to take all of his anger and frustration with the current state of the world, and transform that energy into something that is meditative and healing. And while the final, haunting ‘Bye Bye’, has Owusu starting to struggle with holding that optimism in place, ‘No Looking Back’ remains to be a celebrative and cathartic climax to the record.
“Smiling with No Teeth” is absolutely fantastic. It’s hard to believe this is Owusu’s debut release, since everything about it feels so mature and perfectly concocted, but if anything, it demonstrates that the sky is the limit for what he decides to create next. His musical, vocal, and lyrical abilities are incredible, and the album is so well written that its hard to find a single weakness throughout its entirety. It’s a really fun and rewarding listen, whether you’re going in for its dynamic and flavoursome sound, or its compelling, terrific lyricism. This is, without a doubt, one of the best albums that 2021 has had to offer so far, and I definitely feel it will be able to hold that title throughout the remainder of the year.
"And everywhere that I go, all the scars on my skin
I tell myself that, there's no looking back"