Philadelphia native Santi White made a splash in 2008 with her self-titled debut album, back when she was known as “Santogold.” She turned heads with a smart mix of reggae and new wave, hit the road, then took her time making the follow-up, the even more expansive “Master of My Make-Believe” (Downtown/Atlantic).
Once again cowriting all the tracks and coproducing several, she broadens her rhythmic reach with splashes of African-style percussion and heightens the drama on a handful of brooding ballads. She brings back “Santogold” helpmates Switch, John Hill and Diplo for another spin through the underground clubs, and broadens her pop perspective by collaborating with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and Karen O, TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, among others. Against the non-stop globe-trotting beats, she pins a parade of hooks and melodies with a voice that rarely calls attention to itself (save for the occasional yelp, and one serviceable twist on Nicki Minaj’s rapid-fire zaniness).
The singer-songwriter-producer confidently skips across genres. African flavors bounce with new wave on “Go!” and reggae on “God from the Machine” and “Pirate in the Water.” On “Big Mouth,” the Portuguese producers Buraka Som Sistema throw pogo-ecstatic Angolan beats against wordless, staccato vocals, creating with White a type of techno-pop hybrid that sounds both futuristic and ancient. In “Freak Like Me,” dive-bombing bass undermines a sing-songy vocal hook, and “Look at these Hoes” fires up subterranean tones and machine-gun rhymes, an alien take on Pop 2012.
Sprinkled throughout are more melodic, textured songs, underlining White’s strength as a songwriter (she wrote the criminally underappreciated 2001 debut by R&B singer Res, among other accomplishments from a music career that stretches back to the ‘90s). Over rumbling bass and spastic bursts of guitar, “Disparate Youth” takes a clear-eyed view of street rebellions across the planet: “We know we want more, a life worth fighting for.”
“This isn’t Our Parade” and “The Riot’s Gone" come off as elegies for what might have been; they could be describing the demise of a relationship or a revolution. Best of all is “The Keepers,” a state-of-the-union warning shot tucked inside an engaging melody. “We’re the keepers, while we sleep in America our house is burning down," White sings. Bad vibes are everywhere, but the chorus exhorts us to sing along and the beats guide us to the dancefloor.
White’s subversive way with a hook and her ability to effortlessly blend dance beats from around the world make “Master of My Make-Believe” a deceptively breezy and enticing summer album. But dig a little deeper and the shadows start to creep in.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
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