Introducing…Adam Tensta (and his genre-bending sound) to America

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See there’s this album I’ve been listening to for a while now. I seriously enjoy it. It’s got a new and unique sound. The album’s called It’s A Tensta Thing (2007). The only problem is that when I tell people about it, they get turned off before they even turn it on. Why? Probably because the artist, an up-and-cummer (to use porn vernacular), called Adam Tensta, is a Swedish rapper. And evidently, those two words just don’t play well together.

But before you get all freaked out, don’t fret, he spits only in proper (big-A) American (little-g) gangster English. And frankly, he spits very well — somehow seeming to have been born without a Swedish accent. Tensta, whose real name is Adam Momodou Eriksson Taal, (Gambian father, Swedish mother) takes his surname from his ‘hood, a largely immigrant-filled suburb near Stockholm, rather than from his absentee father who he refers to as “Mr. Invisible” on the now-requisite “ode to mama” track, “Incredible,” which features a chorus from Isay, whoever the hell that is.

In interviews, Tensta, 24, has claimed mid-90s Nas and Mobb Deep as early influences (Ed. note: Well done, young Adam!), along with another famed grassroots struggler, Bob Marley. These influences are evident in Tensta’s lyrics, which, while running the marathon from heartfelt and vulnerable to brash and boastful, never let him stray too far from his two main topics: his tough, but clearly cherished, 80s/90s upbringing, and the current racial and political climate of Sweden.

On “80s Baby” Tensta uses popular video games almost as a timeline (as in Super Tennis to Street Fighter 2), and recalls his harsh youth, rappin’: Look at the smile on the kid but on the inside surrounded by issues that stuck right with ’em like / Moms is cryin’, Pops is gone what the fuck is goin’ on cops breakin’ down the door / Lookin’ for bricks lookin’ for O’s, they got dogs with ’em now they sniffin’ on my clothes.

But on the title track, Tensta stays more current with his storytelling: You tryin’ to say that I ain’t competent for this job? / Since they picked him over me, Swedish name, blue eyes/ You probably right my nigga they leavin’ us plenty jobs / Flippin’ burgers plus menu nigga super-size / That’s what they leavin’ us we buildin’ it from there / We got immigrants, single parents, drug dealers yeh yeah.

And those aren’t even Tensta’s hottest tracks, with nods going instead to “Before U Know It,” “Dopeboy,” “Same Face,” and “They Wanna Know.”

Yet perhaps the real beauty of Tensta’s album, and the real importance, despite his near-classic storytelling ability and naturally developing flow (he’s still feeling it out) — and I say this with mixed feelings — comes in its production. The beats are the real stars of this show. They are a rare and incredible melding of American head-bobbing hip hip (some straight “bangers” as I’d call ’em and some are closer to what Jay-Z often calls “The Bounce”) and European-style synth-driven techno/electro/pop. This is a hip hop album that is filled — packed, jammed, stuffed, to the point of near overflow — with soaring synths and electro keys, making it uniquely “danceable” for a hip hip album from a serious artist who raps about serious shit. Again, rather unique.

This is not an accident as much as it is a shrewd, and courageous, stylistic choice by Tensta. Addeboy vs. Cliff, two well-regarded house music producers, were recruited to produce three songs for It’s A Tensta Thing, and the gambit clearly worked. One of their tracks “They Wanna Know,” is Tensta’s newest single. But the other, less notable (at least stateside) producers come through with truly original sounding beats as well. They include: Howard Who, Kajmir, Nitti Gritti, Leslie, Gifted, and Keione. And I have to admit I’d never heard of any of them before stumbling upon Tensta last year. But I’m hooked now.

The album’s danceability, if that’s a word I can make up right now, is rather remarkable, and must make the always prescient, always evolving, and clearly Daft Punk-loving, Kanye West extremely jealous. When West dropped Graduation in September of 2007, among the (good, I thought) album’s most notable traits was the heavy use of synthy, poppy, retro, almost 80s-era sounds. As if West had found Giorgio Moroder’s old toys at a South Beach yard sale. As if they have yard sales in South Beach. Sure it was most obvious in “Stronger,” the album’s first single, but synthesizers, not just sped up soul samples, play a prominent role in the rest of Graduation as well: “I Wonder,” “Good Life,” and “Flashing Lights” are all heavily synth-driven records. And probably not coincidentally, two more singles off Graduation, which followed the Daft Punk-riffing smash-hit “Stronger” — “Good Life” and “Flashing Lights” — are both extremely synthy, and have an almost soaring, airy quality to them, seldom seen in hip hop music.

Not surprisingly, West is not alone in starting to successfully combine Euro-synth sounds with driving hip hip or R&B beats. Another super-producer, Timbaland, aka Thomas Crown, hit the synth jackpot with 2007’s “The Way I Are,” which, except for Timbaland’s name on the track and his “pseudo-rapping”, is basically a stiripped down house-electro song with a killer baseline that’s just catchy as hell. Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” comes to mind as another example of Timbaland’s outsized success with a synth-driven mainstream hit, though its roots are admittedly less urban.

Simlarly, fast-rising producer Polow da Don, aka King of the White Girls, who made his bones with Fergie’s annoying but chart-topping “London Bridge,” and has probably one of the greatest nicknames of all time, has integrated shimmering synth sounds typically reserved for trancey dance tracks into some of his hottest productions, most notably the (self-leaked) “Love In This Club” by Usher and Young Jeezy, which peaked at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and has remained on the board for the last five weeks. Next up for Polow and his synthesizers, a smooth and subdued electro beat for Beyonce’s “Beautiful Nightmare,” (it should be noted that the “Beautiful Nightmare” production has also been attributed to Jim Jonsin by some sources),  and a more uptempo effort on Nicole Scherzinger’s “Who’s Gonna Love You,” both of which have already been leaked, but not yet released. We’ll see how the charts like those — my guess is they’ll like Beyonce and turn away from Nicole. As usual. (Ed. Note: In my humble opinion, Polow’s best effort on the synth-hip hop front is his little-known remix of Fantasia’s “When I See U,” also featuring Young Jeezy. If you have the resources to unearth this track, I suggest you do so, for the sake of the beat.)

Okay, so what’s the point of all this synth-electro-trancey-techno-hip hop business? The point is that music is changing. I mean, sure, it’s always changing. But this is bigger than a change — it’s a shift. And artists like Adam Tensta, and producers like Timbaland, whether they know it or not, are shifting the tastes of America right now: It’s a little less “gangsters and battles and beefs and threats and southern smoke,” and a little more “party and bullshit and have a good time and dance our fuckin’ asses off in the clubs to beats that make us wanna do just that.” In other words, it’s taking some of the bulletproof vest, alpha-male bullshit out of hip hop music, and infusing it with some light, some life, some fun, and lo and behold, it’s moving the masses. Just ask the masters of the party universe.

Steve Lewis is one of the true Godfathers of New York City nightlife. For over twenty years Lewis ran some of NYC’s most famous, infamous, and hottest hotspots (Life, Tunnel, Limelight, SPA, and Redzone to name a few). Now a top club designer (and as of late, a blogger) with many of NYC’s current hotspots including Marquee, Butter, Home, and Guesthouse to his credit, Lewis is a man who knows people, knows good parties, and knows music. Lewis said recently that he’s “waiting for the music to change.” Hip Hop, Rock and House have all had their moments. “We need a new musical genre,” he said “and we’ve needed one for a while.”

Maybe that new genre is arriving now, maybe we’re on the cusp of something new, something exciting. Something that blends the legitimately poetic lyrical prowess of hip hop artists with uplifting and strong beats that are, as Mr. Lewis would say, simply “undeniable.”

We’ll see.

– Jonathan


Written by Jonathan

March 29, 2008 at 12:32 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] mentioned this song a couple of weeks ago while talking about the increased used of prominent synth sounds in American hip hop and R&B, which I think is a great thing. Now technically this new Beyoncé […]

  2. You guys need a more memorable name for you blog!!


    May 7, 2008 at 10:12 am

  3. […] video HIGHLY recommended — was sampled by none other than up-and-coming Swedish rapper and old IDK favorite, Adam Tensta. His track “80s Baby,” which I chose for IDK’s very first edition of The Friday […]

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