The biggest challenge for any artist who gains popularity and builds a reputation through shock-factor…
The biggest challenge for any artist who gains popularity and builds a reputation through shock-factor tactics is that of sustainability. What makes this even more of a challenge is if it’s coupled with an outright dedication to always being original – and not a “parasite” or “an artificial flavour”. In late 2009, Waddy Jones and Anri du Toit dived head-first into their respective roles as Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er, making the definitive move from Max Normal.TV to Die Antwoord and committing themselves to an indefinite portrayal of Zef culture. The formula seemed to produce a perfect example of marketing guru Seth Godin’s ‘Purple Cow’, receiving exponential amounts of both positive and negative attention – but exponential amounts of attention nonetheless. Fast forward to 2014 and they are the most famous South African act in the world. Having just released their third album, Donker Mag [translation: Dark Power], the most important question to ask is: Do we still care?
Jones’ initial intentions for transforming from Max Normal.TV to Die Antwoord were clear from the start. While musically, Max Normal.TV (and all of his previous incarnations) was rich in experimentation and authenticity, it didn’t necessarily demand attention and could easily be dismissed by the masses as ‘weird weird’ as opposed to ‘cool/acceptable/lol weird’. However, having been in the rap game for 20 years meant that something needed to change. Die Antwoord’s glorification of South African white trash and Zef culture appropriation provided that change in abundance as ‘Enter The Ninja’ and ‘Zef Side’ videos went viral. Their first album, $O$, which was released mostly online and for free, set the scene and cemented their definition of what it means to be Zef. It was an incredible offering of a brand new style and sound – well, at least in the way they packaged it – for the majority of South Africa and naturally, the rest of the world. The consistent theme of their appropriation of Zef culture and its post-apartheid post-PC agenda of non-conformity, hypersexual fantasies, gang affiliation, obsession over wealth and anti-Zuma-and-fat-cat entitlement combined with masterful production from DJ Hi-Tek (Justin de Nobrega) seemed unstoppable.
Their second album, Ten$ion, was released in early 2012 and received with great anticipation to a reasonable amount of critical acclaim. However, it marked a definitive move into pop-rap-rave, with an emphasis on ‘pop’; not stylistically, but in the sense that a lot of their content was lacking the grit of $O$ and relied heavily on catchy hooks. Despite a sense of consistency in terms of carrying over themes from $O$, they were lyrically less interesting from a South African point of view. The self-referential need to prove how rich, famous and apathetic they had become was the focus as opposed to $O$ which was layered in comical/satirical South African nuances. For the most part, these would have been overlooked by the international audience and Die Antwoord’s image alone would be enough to carry them on an international level.
Since then they have received a fair amount of public criticism relating to issues of latent frustration regarding exploitation and appropriation and in the form of general disinterest. At this point, their apathy is their worst enemy, because by continuously employing ironically predictable shock-tactics and rapping about how rich and famous they are, Die Antwoord become the antithesis of what they set out to become – ‘meh’. Luckily for them, Donker Mag has done a decent enough job in avoiding this. With subtle hints towards more Max Normal-esque lyrics and style (which in Jones’ case is synonymous with greater substance) and some intriguing musical/production experimentation, the album maintains a holistically redeeming quality.
The return to ‘Max Normalisms’ is interesting considering Ninja’s initial uncompromising dismissal of Max Normal, most notable on his verse in ‘Wat Pomp’ off $O$. The inclusion of a shortened version of ‘Moon Love’, which was originally released as a 13-minute long Max Normal.TV track on Good Morning South Africa, reveals this return in its most obvious form. It is a recording of a young girl, who it seems safe to assume, is Jones and du Toit’s daughter Sixteen Jones, attempting to wake Yo-Landi up with the endearing line, “Mommy, my heart is broken.” The track reveals a truly beautiful moment of sincerity and vulnerability for Ninja in particular as it broadcasts his role as a father and marks a clean departure from the brash Die Antwoord bravado. ‘Strunk’ and the closing title-track ‘Donker Mag’ are also more obvious hints to the return with sincere melodious and ambient production and vocals. Despite the misleading title and hypersexual-bordering-on-misogynistic content of ‘Raging Zef Boner’, it stands out as another track with more subtle hints sewn into an otherwise definitively Die Antwoord track. Lyrics such as “Maybe I should send a pic of my dick back / do chicks really dig that?” re-introduce the insecurity and self-doubt so well entrenched by Max Normal.
While the return to ‘Max Normalisms’ can act as a positive attribute of the album, Die Antwoord’s continually contentious disregard for insensitive appropriation is a negative. Despite the interesting and catchy hook on ‘Ugly Boy’, the track finds both Ninja and Yo-Landi dropping the n-word multiple times. ‘Zars’ acts as Ninja’s protest against South Africa’s ‘over-sensitive’ attitude towards race relations and appropriation as he flows with purpose between the different South African accents, and ‘Cookie Thumper!’ is a dangerously playful affiliation and appropriation of the Numbers gangs. Arguments of artistic integrity and portraying Zef culture fall flat as the fact that Jones and du Toit are white means that their apathy towards cultural misappropriation will always stem from a position of white privilege. Even if the argument extends to the fact that Zef culture attempts to represent poor people of all races, as a poor white person, no matter how unfortunate your circumstances are, you are not poor due to systematic oppression. Therefore, Die Antwoord’s use of the n-word and continued apathy towards appropriation will remain problematic, but will also help to avoid the ‘meh’ factor as it does generate a dialogue. Why else would this paragraph have been written?
The more pop-sentiment side to the album has its moments with some incredible production and catchy hooks. ‘Girl I Want 2 Eat U’ flirts with Ninja’s anti-Zuma-and-fat-cat entitlement obsession, with a deadly cool vocal sample hook, but a disappointingly straight goema-groove – much like the kind employed by Pitbull who Ninja ironically attempts to diss in the following track ‘Pitbull Terrier’. ‘Rat Trap 666’ is another *yawn* hater-track, but lacks any form of grit. ‘I Dont Dwank’ starts off with an impressive and enjoyable freestyle verse from Ninja, but it follows on to ‘Sex’ which is nothing special. However, what usually makes up for the mundane lyrical content of the more pop-inclined tracks is Ninja’s flow and often devilishly quick delivery, which unfortunately, is lacking for the most part.
Donker Mag has done enough to prove that Die Antwoord are possibly out of touch in terms of an increasingly powerful youth outlook on the South African racial and political landscape. However, they remain contentious and controversial enough to be relevant. The degree of their relevance is definitely up for debate, but it seems like we still care about them and maybe we should continue to do so for now. The return to Max Normal-esque material could be a good indication of where they are headed. Maybe Waddy Jones is actually a genius and there’s a still an even grander master plan that has yet to be revealed. It seems unlikely, but if they decide to refocus on tapping into the invaluable insights and nuances embedded in Max Normal.TV’s Good Morning South Africa as well as $O$, which Donker Mag hints to at times, then the best of Die Antwoord is hopefully still to come.