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Angel-Ho Steps Out Front

South African trans artist, as personality and persona, releases debut album

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South African producer/ vocalist Angel-Ho likes American pop music enough that she’s posted a remix of Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat,” re-named “Howling Motorbikes,” on the download site Bandcamp. But her debut album “Death Becomes Her” approaches it with a distance that partially reflects the fact that she’s a trans woman. Her reputation up to this point has been based on her instrumental production on three EPs, work as a DJ, and co-founding of the NON Worldwide label. With this album, she’s begun expressing herself more directly by singing and rapping in a voice that recalls Grace Jones.

Its first single is called “Like a Girl.” It begins with Angel-Ho singing, “I can be your girl in a lonely world.” American rapper K-Rizz delivers the second verse in a sexually frank style and hyped-up flow. But when Angel-Ho returns, she describes herself an “African queen” and “whistle-blower,” as well as a “shot caller.” Along with “Like That,” which is dominated by thick blasts of bass, this is the closest “Death Becomes Her” comes to mainstream pop. However, I don’t think it’s reading too much to think that the many breathy declarations of “I can be your girl” are self-aware about the number of people who don’t accept trans women as genuine women.

“Death Becomes Her” brings up images of femininity and female sexuality from pop music and places them in a new context. When its lyrics explicitly refer to Britney Spears, I’m sure that Angel-Ho genuinely loves her music, but she’s not making straightforward, easily consumable music. “Muse To You” features boasting about designer bags and sex, but instead of simply celebrating her success, Angel-Ho sings, “no longer beaten and abused, you are the muse.” The lyrics of “Business” and “Live” come close to familiar hip-hop bragging but do so over dissonant backing tracks instead of smooth, danceable beats. On “Live,” the music eventually gets louder and harsher, drowning out her vocals.

Much of “Death Becomes Her” consists of woozy, abrasive instrumentals featuring metallic percussion. “Jacomina” offers some relief with a funky bassline evoking the theme from “Seinfeld.” Angel-Ho frequently overdubs and processes her voice to the point where it becomes disorienting. “Destify” uses vocals to simulate a buzzing hive of bees; singing actual words seems beside the point. “Good Friday Daddy,” on which she’s joined by singer Queezy, takes this in an overtly feminist direction without becoming a conventional protest song. Angel-Ho layers anguished voices repeating “good Friday Daddy” and “it’s Daddy” five or six thick, with a sinister implication quite clear from their tone, as well as the screeching synthesizers, sudden leaps in volume, and a stop-and-start beat. While the song doesn’t spell this out explicitly, it’s hard to avoid both its hints of incest and “daddy” in a general sense of overbearing patriarchy.

The production on these songs makes it clear how much pain lies behind the pleasure described by their lyrics. Angel-Ho presents herself as a glamorous star — a “trans goddess,” in her words — but she keeps the seams of her music visible and makes it obvious that she’s enacting a persona. Her lyrics are strewn with quotes and pop culture references: Michael Jackson, the Bee Gees, Lil’ Kim, Spears, Marilyn Monroe, “V For Vendetta.” But if minority artists are frequently called to make explicitly autobiographical work commodifying a traumatic past, “Death Becomes Her” resists that. If the album’s aesthetic is born out of experiences of violence, she doesn’t refer directly to them.

Angel-Ho has her own personality and her sound is marked by her strong South African accent, but the album has similarities to two of the strongest 2018 albums released by LGBTQ musicians, Yves Tumor’s “Safe in the Hands of Love” and SOPHIE’s “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides.” Like them, it tries to create a sound that’s both noisy and accessible in order to express a desire for comfort and figure out how to build a healthy identity in a world that regards queer people with contempt. The album’s sequencing is well thought-out, going back and forth between instrumentals and more pop-oriented songs. She finds inspiration in a lot of hip-hop tropes, even references to fashion and beauty that are often dismissed as shallow materialism, but proud trans women have been shut out of the genre’s mainstream. “Death Becomes Her” locates something subversive in achieving a joy that cisgender people take for granted.

ANGEL-HO | “Death Becomes Her” | Hyperdub | Drops Mar. 1 | hyperdub.net

Updated 9:35 am, March 1, 2019
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