Prior to signing THEESatisfaction, Seattle’s venerable alt/indie imprint, Sup Pop Records, had just one rap act on its roster: Shabazz Palaces, whose left-of-leftfield Black Up featured THEESatisfaction’s Stas and Cat on two tracks. Given the groups’ intertwined history, not to mention their shared penchant for abstract, Afro-futurist jazz-rap, it would be easy to see awE naturalE as a Shabazz spin-off. But THEESatisfaction has invested as many years and as much sweat in Seattle’s rap scene: Their national tours have been at their own expense, and awE naturalE is itself the culmination of three years’ work. At its best, it’s an album that can stand on its own merits, letting you forget about how badly mainstream rap needs the cerebral-spiritual vibes blowing in from the Pacific Northwest right now, or how awesome it is that a pair of proud lesbians are writing, producing, and performing some of the smartest music in hip-hop, and instead just sink into the album’s lush, sinewy grooves.
In some ways, awE naturalE is an even better album than Black Up. Its stylistic breadth is greater, ranging from ‘70s funk to Sun Ra-inspired jazz, and while its productions can’t match Black Up‘s for instant emotional wallop, high points like “Needs” and “Queens” groove with the kind of bodily finesse that the often incorporeal Shabazz Palaces can’t readily access. The latter track in particular benefits from Stas and Cat’s surplus of sass, proving that the duo can deliver dance-floor imperatives like “Just bring yourself” or, more hilariously, “Sweat through your cardigan” as vigorously as they assert the relevance of their melanin on “Deeper.” Both MCs should be an object of study for aspiring underground rappers for how to inject humor into even the knottiest and most esoteric of flows.
THEESatifaction does occasionally tip over into the kind of tedious provocations that conscious rap is infamous for, though even their more questionable decisions, like including a song in which the words “one” and “zero” are the only lyrics, are so evidently their decisions that it’s hard to write them off. There aren’t a lot of mistakes on awE naturalE, but the apparent rigor with which any excess or indulgence seems to have been avoided does result in missed opportunities. The first two tracks, “Awe” and “Bitch,” seem only to have just locked their grooves before they end abruptly, and about half of the album’s brief run time is constituted by tracks that are less than three minutes long. There’s a real conflict between the album’s immersive productions (to say nothing of Stas and Cat’s transportive lyricism) and the stunted, sketch-like nature of the individual songs. THEESatisfaction can’t be accused of not bringing themselves, but it’s a shame to imagine the album awE naturalE could’ve been if they’d just brought more.