Every year I curate a running playlist of powerhouse tracks featuring female vocalists. I call it “Fuck Yeah Divas!” and previous installments have prominently featured both pop powerhouse Santigold, a.k.a. Santogold, a.k.a. Santi White, and Karen O’s reliably manic Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The opportunities presented by a crossover are considerable, and so the same is necessarily true of expectations. Last time I got this excited about seeing two women’s names in such close proximity, they were “Phoenix” and “Chun Li” and I was salivating over the release of the latest Marvel v. Capcom game.
I put on “GO” anticipating pop with fangs. And sure enough, Santi opens the track with the kind of sneer that can’t help but show its teeth: “People want my power and they want my station.” On impressive display is Santi’s knack for vocal contortions, as she repeatedly nails complex, oddball melodies that the post-Mariah melismaniacs parading around the Top 40 couldn’t dream of delivering. Like in the first verse, where the rhyme is “Paris” with “status,” she’ll use the last syllable of each word to throw her voice into a furious Xena yelp without losing the note or her annunciation. Lyrically, “GO” is a hater-baiting anthem in the same line of descent as M.I.A.’s “XXXO” and Robyn’s “U Should Know Better.” Santi does this kind of material exceptionally well, sounding less paranoid than M.I.A. and less self-absorbed than your average trash-talking rapper, and, as “L.E.S. Artistes” proved, she can pull of self-righteous better than almost anyone else, largely because her crusading actually scans, credibly, as righteous. But where “L.E.S. Artistes” simply singed the eyebrows of hipsters and critics, “GO” is a flamethrower of indignation pointed at all manner of sycophants, fast-trackers, and get-rich-quickers.
It helps that “GO” sounds as quick and clever as Santi herself, alternating a prickly, heavily overdubbed stutter with verses that sound like a Go-Go’s track tattered and tied up with guitar strings. The track, which was constructed by Santi, Q-Tip, Switch, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Nick Zinner, recalls the rampaging glee of Karen O and Zinner’s work on the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack, but sonically favors Go! Team maximalism to that film’s primal pop stylings.
For verse three, Karen O commands the track with the same quotient of regal and batshit that Nicki Minaj brought to Kanye’s “Monster.” (Could you even imagine if they remixed “GO” to give Nicki a verse? I could see her tearing this shit to pieces, and yeah, I know she’s way overexposed right now, but that bad girl trifecta…I mean, damn, no words for what I’d do to hear that on Nicki’s next mixtape.) Since the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have moved from scrappy Brooklyn bomb-throwers to something of an institution in indie rock, Karen O’s antics, both on stage and record, have been domesticated. If It’s Blitz! suggested that she had yet to be totally declawed, then her verse here shows that she can still flip into full-on punk-rock dragon-lady mode when there are asses to be kicked. Surely, the energy she’s feeding off of must feel familiar (there’s considerable overlap in the Santi/Karen O experience of hype, expectation, and backlash, not to mention their negotiations of the underground art world as educated minority women) and she sounds newly invigorated.
All the stranger, then, that Santi should admit to Life and Times that insecurities on both ends almost stopped the collaboration from going off: After a missed email, each singer briefly concluded that the other had been turned off by her work. Santi and Karen O obviously managed to uncross their wires and pull the track together nicely. I can’t believe that the two ferocious vocalists strutting and snarling on “GO” have anything to be insecure about. Whatever anxiety the pair feels about their standing in the music world, it’s all sublimated as swagger and virtuosity here. There’s only one reasonable reaction to “GO”: Hit repeat and pray that the ladies take this double-headliner on the road.