Every artist essentially returns again and again to the same themes. For Ninja it’s jealousy and fame (‘Jou Ma Se Poes In A Fish Paste Jar’, ‘I Fink U Freeky’), For Yo-landi, it’s identity and place, (“My naam is Yo-landi Vi$$er and I’m all up in this place” – ‘Fok Julle Naaiers’). For myself it’s the role of memory and fiction in creating personal history (that is, always being the guy who has to review Die Antwoord albums).
In light of this constant exploration of one overarching theme, the successful artist is one that constantly evolves their approach to the theme. The artist that treads water, creating the same work over and over again, gets left behind. Until now The Artist Formerly Known As Watkin Tudor Jones junior has not been prone to repetition. Which begs the question: is Ten$ion an evolution, or is it a sequel?
In Die Antwoord’s paradigm, a sequel would have more zef cred than an artistic evolution; they are, after all, fiercely anti-intellectual, which is always the best defence when conceptually you’ve got nothing more than a costume and a mask. And that there is the grand Die Antwoord gambit; stay dumb, put your fingers in your ears and shout, ”I’m not listening to you because YOU’RE stupid” all the while pointing out to your detractors that you’ve got a bigger cock than them.
Ten$ion is a bold, brash chaotic jumble from opening track, ‘Never Le Nkemise’. Sotho chanting and harmonies are broken suddenly by Ninja wailing, “I’m indestructible!” Long dubstep stabs and a squelchy pulse quickly break it up, with Ninja telling us we won’t survive, that he’s gangster number one and, gasp, the shock of it, that he’s a “wit kaffir”. ‘I Fink U Freeky’ suffers without it’s video accompaniment, the rave histrionics, gabba beats and vicious electro jolts have to rely solely on Yo-landi’s charms in order to sustain interest. It’s a song about how everyone in the world wants to fuck Yo-landi and that they never will. It’s also about how all the dwankies (Ninja’s new entry for the Zef African section of Urban Dictionary, meaning people who are lame) never thought they would get famous, but they did, so fuck you, right?
‘Pielie’ is a skit that, I think, is meant to illustrate just how dumb their humour is, as well as, maybe, how dumb skits are in general. Or maybe their humour is just, um, dumb. Anyway it’s a joke that could have been culled from the archives at Wat Kyk Jy. ‘Hey Sexy’ is the first totally inconsequential track on the album, it’s a swinging trebly headache inducing attempt at rap comedy. It also includes the first Interscope diss.
‘Fatty Boom Boom’ represents, along with ‘You Make A Ninja Wanna Fuck’ and ‘Baby’s On Fire’, the direction that most makes sense. Sub bass, grime beats, and fast blips under an AK-47 flow rap battle between Yo-landi and Ninja. It’s exactly the kind of fast paced dance crap you want to fuck out to at 5 am when you’ve taken too much bad ecstasy. It also includes a throwback lyric from ‘Dagga Puff’, off their first album. ‘Zef Side’ is notable only for the familiar “Whatever” line from $0$, and some nice synthetic popping bamboo sounds.
Ninja opens ‘So What’ by calling it “old feel good gangster shit”. While it has a beat that brings to mind some late 90s’ Dre, the No Diggity-esque piano gives it a comic edge. “In South Africa they think I’m a criminal,” intones Yo-landi meaningfully. It’s “the most personal” track on the album and doubly so when Ninja occasionally slips into Max Normal voice, the accent falling away briefly as he takes us through his early history. But it’s less personal than descriptive; it talks of what happens without really allowing any emotional access. The early history of Watkin Tudor Jones is now just another creation myth to mine. The song ends with a series of boasts about the people they now hang out with and how they’re “so hot right now”. It’s the closet they get to an “Evil Boy, why’s your penis so big” style hook. ‘Uncle Jimmy’ is a skit with Ninja as Jimmy Iovine trying to mack on Yo-landi. It’s clear by this point that Die Antwoord feel their greatest achievement is turning down Interscope.
‘Baby’s On Fire’ has the 2Unlimited shit right there. It’s like a sokkie version of a Technotronic track, with Ninja the masculine Robin S croon/chanting “BA. BEES. ON. FI. YA.” It’s deliciously mad, playful and dumb without being self-conscious. You can already see the dance tent crowds going ape-shit. ‘You Make A Ninja Wanna Fuck’ is Ninja’s best moment on the album, his flow is controlled, fast and nuanced like nowhere else, Yo-landi implores “maak my jus,” the production of the electro glitch is excellent. And when Ninja sings “I think we’re alone now, the beating of my heart is the only sound,” you know he’s referencing the Tiffany version. ‘Fok Julle Naaiers’ is another song about being famous and telling people they don’t care about how much they hate them. It’s nice that they wrote a song about it. Makes me think they care.
‘DJ Hi Tek Rulez’ has DJ Hi Tek quoting Mike Tyson’s “I’m a gonna fuck you til you love me, fuck you til you love me” over and over again. It’s about as shocking as Ninja saying “wit kaffir” on the opening track. ‘Never Le Nkemise 2′ is the rave meets massive dubstep, wait for the drop, closing track. Ninja uses his new word, dwanky, again. Then it fades out with the opening Sotho harmonies.
Artists build on what other artists have done. They pay homage to their influences, they steal, they reinterpret, all in the aim of exploring the themes that haunt them. Die Antwoord do that, but what haunts them is themselves, so they steal from themselves, reinterpret themselves, pay homage to themselves, and they duplicate themselves, like some 90s’ chill-out tent fractal projection.
Ten$ion lacks the hooks that made the first album; there is no ‘Evil Boy’ here, no ‘Super Evil’, no ‘Wat Kyk Jy’ and no ‘Enter The Ninja’. In fact without the live presence of Die Antwoord or without the visual backing of Roger Ballen, most of the album will come off as a second rate Die Antwoord knock off. It might be intentionally bad, but it is still bad. Die Antwoord have gone from being a music act that was also a conceptual art performance, to a conceptual act with second-rate music. Conceptually Die Antwoord have not evolved, the only thing next level about Ten$ion is that they’ve moved on from dissing Spoek Mathambo and Markus Wormstorm to dissing Jimmy Iovine.
Ten$ion is an eclectic, occasionally brilliant, uneven, incoherent, controversy seeking 101, in your face, pounding mess for dullards and trash humpers. Which makes it perfect fodder for a long summer in the dance tents of America, Australia and Europe.
On Ten$ion Die Antwoord put on their image in the same way as Deadmau5 puts on that stupid headgear. It’s big, loud, dumb music to fuck out to, but its dressed up to make you think that there is more to it, that there is mystery, so that when you’re not fucking out to it you’re still thinking about it. But the mystery, the answer, the message is nothing more than this: We make big, dumb, stupid, aggressive dance music. Fuck out to us.
The boldest thing about Die Antwoord used to be the hidden assertion that all cultures of South African belong to all South Africans, to appropriate and remould as they wish. The hidden assertion on Ten$ion is that that was never their intention, they just wanted fame and dancing; and I don’t buy it. Producing a second album in the face of such sudden and massive fame would throw anyone. In Ninja’s taunts about fame and jealousy, one could read disbelief that he has actually arrived. In the listing and boasting about their new famous friends, one might also see an artist finally finding his way into a pool of successful misfits that understand him. We can only hope that Die Antwoord eventually stabilise into their new paradigm and make real their true potential for greatness; but for now, Ten$ion, as an album, is merely a sequel, and a pretty dwanky one at that.