One quotation I keep coming back to with regards to DC musician Muhsinah Abdul-Karim is one she made herself a few years back in the final paragraph of a brief XLR8R feature: “…my intention was never to seek approval. It was just to learn and try something new.” This bullish, forward-thinking mentality has landed her guest vocal slots with Flying Lotus (“Lose My Fuse”) as well as backing band status for Common (that started with an appearance on “Changes”) and appearances with The Noisettes on Letterman, tours with N*E*R*D and The Roots, and even a Grammy nomination. She may be a classically trained pianist, but it’s the ravenous omnivore in her that continues to fuel the musical fires.
That’s part of what her transition from sample-based music to original melodies was about, and it manifested itself in the Oscillations EPs. Her follow-up three years later is Gone, which takes a step in a more aggressive direction. In the past, comparisons to Georgia-Anne Muldrow were practically unavoidable and her multi-part harmonies even had a friendly air of The Dirty Projectors about them. With this six-song EP, she has moved past rich, occasionally husky vocal exercises and focuses instead on songwriting and the music itself.
The results are interesting. The production draws strong influence from the warm, enveloping synthesizer tones of the L.A. scene, but those artists’ oft-muted beats are sacrificed for an updated take on the boom-bap of her earlier days. There’s also a fondness for 8-bit sounds, exemplified early on the junkyard clang of an otherwise unassuming song like “Stop & Go.” It may be no coincidence that the opening song, “One,” starts off with nothing so much as a simple snap of the fingers – Muhsinah is artful in luring you in as a listener with something that simple. Yet, before you’ve reached 15 minutes, there’s a distorted electric guitar and you’re embroiled in the struggle of “Down to 1.”
The lyrical content uniformly draws from “a place of emotional vulnerability.” Look at the titles: “One,” “Gone,” “Down to 1,” “Till I’m Gone.” Yet her personal misfortune informs the mood in a way that you never feel outright sorry for her; it’s clear this woman is used to overcoming obstacles and cares little for pity. The more upbeat “Stop!” is a testament to this, and as the recurring words and phrases of the EP build to her “doing this wrong, over and over,” you know she is, and yet neither of you mind.
Muhsinah’s show of confidence here reminds me of a less outsized Santi White. Santogold was a righteous demonstration of talent and confidence with Diplo and Switch manning the boards to make it more relevant, more obviously “tasteful” (even though I’d suggest Santi never needed those co-signs, which probably hurt her in the long run). Muhsinah goes one step further in showing a similar ability for pop craftswomanship in doing it all herself. And this is the same person content to play in a backing band. Of course she doesn’t seek approval – self-discovery, not recognition, is Muhsinah’s lifeblood. As long as she’s got that, she’s an artist worth our time and attention.