For Fans Of
‘I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses’ is the second album from solo Zambian-Canadian rapper and producer Backxwash, real name Ashanti Mutinta, and is a title so long that I will not write it in full for the remainder of this review. After her first album ‘God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It’ got so much positive press, I was cautiously optimistic about what a follow-up would even look and sound like. Thankfully, my fears of a sophomore slump have been fully alleviated by this new album, which while not quite as provocative as the first – follow-ups rarely are – it’s still powerful nonetheless.
In a generalised, best-of-both-worlds sense, Backxwash’s music has the uncanny ability to be enjoyed by both hip hop heads and metal listeners, and often for completely different reasons. Metal listeners should be able to gravitate towards the album’s production, which is a potent blend of doom, noise, trap beats, and inspired use of samples. Hip hop fans, on the other hand, can come for dynamic flows, aggressive delivery, and lyrics that are as personal as can be. I’ll start with the former.
One thing I’ve always appreciated Backxwash is that practically no beat, no instrumental, stays the exact same way for an entire song. Here, all ten songs have some degree of heterogeneity to their production. The second verse of the title track introduces some piercing electric guitar licks, as well as a beat that severely builds in energy before the final chorus and a hefty bass boost to the final chorus, allowing the song’s climax to have that an extra “oomph” that I really appreciate. Another example is ‘NINE HELLS’, the second verse of which uses some chugging nu-metal guitars to differentiate it from the first verse’s beat. I never went through a big nu phase as a teenager – sorry, I just never owned a wallet chain – but the sparse use of this nu-metal instrumentation works surprisingly well.
The use of samples on this album is very interesting. The song ‘666 IN LUXAXA’, referring to the capital of Ashanti’s home country, begins with a sample of (what I’m going to guess) is the communal singing from Zambia. It then loops that singing, and turns it into an extremely effective, rather driving beat for the song’s single verse, before returning to the un-edited singing for the outro. I can’t talk about this album’s samples without bringing up the final track, ‘BURN TO ASHES’, which uses, of all things, a sweet slice of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ‘Static’ in its central beat. Not only that, but as the song reaches its end, the Godspeed sample becomes more intense to help Backxwash’s song, and the wider album, to their grand conclusion. Make fun of “crescendo-core” post rock all you want, but if it works, it just fucking works. In fact, it works so well I’m confused as to why sampling Godspeed isn’t more common. If Lil Peep can sample Have a Nice Life, anything is possible! Maybe one day we’ll hear Kanye sampling Neutral Milk Hotel. Let the /mu/core floodgates open, let a thousand flowers bloom.
Not every sample is a winner, however. If a producer is as bold as Backxwash with their sample choices, there are bound to be the odd miss. The opening to ‘NINE HELLS’ has a sample that, I assume, is supposed to sound vaguely industrial, but instead of making me think of Rammstein or Kollaps, it recalls the kind of music that would play on the DVD menu screen for a movie from 1998. I cannot possibly explain why that is the image that come to mind, but I hope I’m not the only one with that association. While I’m being negative, it might be my most controversial opinion of this album that I cannot stand the screamed vocals by Ada Rook in the chorus of the titular track. It honestly reminds me of amateurish metalcore bands covering rap songs, like when the Australian band Ocean Sleeper covered Danny Brown’s ‘Smokin and Drinkin’.
What is especially unfortunate is that the lyrics in the chorus are fantastic, describing someone forced into a nomadic life because they don’t feel welcome anywhere:
“Empty, alone, waiting
Everything that didn’t kill me|
Set me adrift between
Run away, no destination
Greyhound station, release me abomination”
The chorus powerfully summarizes what has already been said throughout the verses, that her skin colour and her trans identity keep her from feeling at home in either her home country Zambia, and in Canada, her adopted country. If these lyrics were performed by Backxwash herself, or sung by someone like Sad13, who appears later in the album on ‘SONG OF SINNERS’, I feel it would be much better. As you can imagine, lyrically, the album pulls as few punches as the production does. Topics covered range from suicidal ideation, drug use, being part of the African diaspora, religion and occultism, and being trans.
The first track, ‘PURPOSE OF PAIN’, is a sample of a doctor speaking about pain’s function as a biological alarm system. He says: “The purpose of pain is to get our attention, that something is wrong, protect us from further damage and to request care. It’s in this sense that a little bit of pain is a good thing.” Given that Backxwash is outspokenly trans, you could apply that quote to someone experiencing gender dysphoria. In the way that you wouldn’t turn off your smoke alarm because it’s irritating, dysphoria shouldn’t be ignored, but examined as a symptom of something deeper.
You could apply the same logic to the lyrics about suicide that are littered throughout the album. Like physical pain, suicidal ideation doesn’t just spring up naturally: it comes from somewhere, and that path needs to be examined if one’s mental health is truly going to improve. Lyrics about “hanging from a ceiling” on ‘WAIL OF THE BANSHEE’, or this telling lyric taken from the title track:
“The world is run by the wicked
Get a gun and you finish it, everyone will be livid
I’ll see their smiles, let ’em run through the grinning
I’m thinking like “shit, only been gone for a couple minutes”
‘IN THY HOLY NAME’ is a track that, as is obvious given the title, deals with Backxwash’s relationship to religion. The chorus has Backxwash calling for God to save her, which is strange given that so much of the album deals with occultism and criticisms of religious dogma. ‘666 IN LUXAXA’ deals with Backxwash’s position as a trans person in Zambia, a predominantly Christian country due to years of colonialism. One could interpret the refrain for Jesus to save her as similar to the feelings of someone in an abusive relationship, constantly seeking approval and acceptance from someone, in this case, something that has caused them irreparable harm. This sentiment is juxtaposed with a sample of an evangelical preacher declaring that queer people (he says gay men specifically, but it can be extrapolated) need to be “saved” by God.
Backxwash addresses her trans identity far more explicitly with this new album. The end of the first verse of ‘TERROR PACKETS’ has Backxwash loudly declaring “I’m just a dick to these hoes”, a clever and funny double meaning. The obvious meaning is that she treats transphobes like shit, as she rightfully should. The second meaning is that to transphobic people, trans women with penises are defined by their genitals alone. And even if trans women didn’t have penises, if they don’t pass adequately as a woman to these bigoted people, transphobes will still conjure a dick in their mind and implant it on them regardless. Trans women are just a dick to transphobes, whether those transphobes declare themselves “feminist” or not. (Goddamn TERFs, I swear.)
Occultism is obviously a big theme in Backxwash’s whole project, so I’m going to take a small moment to discuss it in relation to the recent use of Satanic imagery in Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero’, since it’s been in the news recently. A possible concern for Backxwash’s whole project, combining hip hop and metal with occult aesthetics and themes, is that it can potentially be outflanked by more popular artists like Lil Nas X drawing upon the occult for shock value. ‘Montero’ poses something of a challenge to Backxwash’s longevity, because as an artist, you don’t want to hang around for too long once your style risks becoming co-opted, and Satanism is extraordinarily co-optable. Yet there are a few key differences that make Backxwash’s engagement with the occult far more interesting.
The first is that Backxwash, similar to how Zeal & Ardor approach religion and faith, draws on the occult and the religious for more than shock value. The music video for ‘Montero’ was making a similar point that Backxwash’s entire project has done: essentially telling reactionaries that “I would rather be Satan than be guilty about myself”. But ‘Montero’ has, so far, been Lil Nas X’s only engagement with the occult and the demonic, while Backxwash has dedicated an entire musical project to it. And, frankly, outrage marketing is in-vogue at the moment, and the downside to Lil Nas X’s immense popularity is that these attempts at being shocking always have the smell of marketing to them.
The second difference between ‘Montero’ and Backxwash’s music is that the latter’s lyrics actually engage with occult themes, not as a secondary addition to its music video. This album is replete with songs that refer to religion and the occult: ‘IN THY HOLY NAME’, ‘SONG OF SINNERS’, and ‘666 IN LUXAXA’, the latter bringing in non-Western ideas of occultism as well. Again, take these lyrics from the title track:
“On the bed I’m moping with a head of horns
And the red in clothing in the den of swords
With the stake impaled, as Satan sells me
On the perfect hell and he says it well”
This isn’t even mentioning Backxwash’s first album, which was packed front to back with religious references, including that very title: ‘God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It.’ The third difference is that the production between the two acts is vastly different: Backxwash’s generally being more closely aligned with occult or Satanist music than Lil Nas X. The production on ‘Montero’ is mostly acoustic guitar intertwined into a trap beat that’s not out of the ordinary for a lot of contemporary rappers. The beat on ‘IN THY HOLY NAME’, in fact, is driven primarily by acoustic guitar not all that different from the one on ‘Montero’, but Backxwash’s track also samples what sounds like Christian chanting or glossolalia for the main beat. Like I said above, it includes a sample of an evangelist declaring that queer people require salvation from God. Backxwash’s production, compared to Lil Nas X’s, draws on music that has had a relationship to the occult, particularly doom metal. After all, she did include a sample of Black Sabbath very prominently on her previous album.
All these differences suggest that Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero’ draws on the occult as an afterthought primarily for shock value rather than to make a specific point. Even if that point is present in the music video, as I said above, it’s not really backed up in the lyrics or the production as a song. Which is fine, shock value still has its purpose, but Backxwash’s engagement with occult themes is more thorough, more purposeful, and generally more interesting. Her new album is all the stronger for that measured, more careful examination.
‘I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses’ really is a great follow-up to Backxwash’s first explosion into the metal and hip hop worlds in 2018. Three years later, it’s darker, harsher and more potent. Dabbling in Satanic themes and imagery is always a risk to a musician’s staying power – the metal world particularly has more than its fair share – but Backxwash’s purposeful exploration of religion is well-suited to her musical style, and she makes a multi-faceted statement that goes well beyond shock value. Not only that, but everything from her vocal delivery to her bold production affirms her huge value to both the hip hop and metal realms.
1. PURPOSE OF PAIN
2. WAIL OF THE BANSHEE
3. I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES
4. TERROR PACKETS
5. IN MY HOLY NAME
6. BLOOD IN THE WATER
7. SONGS OF SINNERS
8. 666 IN LUXAXA
9. NINE HELLS
10. BURN TO ASHES
‘I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses’ is out now!