“Artistry” is often synonymous with bleakness and self-involved introspection in pop, but 99¢ is springy, bright, and almost flippant with regard to issues of identity and authenticity, as Santigold riffs on the commercialization of her sound throughout her third album. She’s joked that 99 cents is a fair price for her efforts, and the album’s cover art, a knowing wink that she’s never been packaged for the masses because she doesn’t fit into any one box, finds her shrink-wrapped, stoic, and seemingly suffocating.
Opener “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” combines bouncy, bendy synth lines and coy flutes with the kind of self-aggrandizing lyrics that have become second nature to Santigold: “If I wasn’t me, I can be sure I’d wanna be.” 99¢ is frontloaded with similarly ephemeral tracks: “Big Boss Big Time Business” features schoolyard taunts over alternating sections of thick dub and melodic ska, near the end of which Santigold goes gorgeously off-kilter by imitating birds and monkeys as a backing track. “Banshee” is punk rock redone in sounds made by a pinball machine; “Let me play with fire tonight,” she sings, and you wish she’d be so bold. It’s catchy and catchall, but like 2012’s Master of My Make-Believe, the album fails to evolve Santigold’s sound in any meaningful way, another underwhelming attempt at capturing the frenetic and brash energy of her debut.
The album’s midsection is where Santigold grows more introspective and the music less cartoonish. Though it sounds just like Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” (albeit filtered through waterlogged speakers), “Chasing Shadows” puts Santigold’s acrobatic delivery to excellent use. She’s unsure of herself stuttering out the staccato lyrics of the verses, vulnerable in the little-girl voice of the chorus, and devastatingly intimate on the closing line: “Neon sign goes red/’You are here,’ it says/Well, at least someone knows where I am.” “Walking in a Circle” simmers slowly and windingly, a perfect ’80s send-up of “Rendezvous Girl” that pairs a new-wave chug with robotic, detached vocals.
Threatening the momentum, however, is “Who Be Lovin Me,” a duet with trap’s pied piper, ILoveMakonnen, stuck dead-center on the album between its strongest tracks. Whether the song’s jarring production—a buoyant, punchy drum track beneath lazy, woozy, two-step synths—or ILoveMakonnen’s rap about llamas and alpacas appeals to you or not, it’s a shame Santigold imitates the demented cadence of her partner as opposed to leading him somewhere into her own odd world. Of all the collaborations on the album (including Hit-Boy, TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, who helmed “Chasing Shadows”), the work with ILoveMakonnen looks most on paper like an empty bid for relevance, and sounds it too.
What 99¢ really lacks is Santigold’s ability to fuse her countless creative preoccupations and genre competencies into three-minute bursts of cohesive songwriting. More often than hitting a sweet spot in between, the songs here are overly busy (like “Big Boss”) or short on ideas (the by-the-numbers “Before the Fire” and the psych-rock “Outside the War”), and the album’s title turns into an unfortunate allusion to a warehouse stocked to the brim with cheap toys, none built to last. There’s a poignant moment on “Run the Races,” a slice of minimal electric gospel, when Santigold sings delicately that “it may not be safe…but I’m going out there.” It brings to mind the days when she was already fearlessly and disruptively there.