"If I killed your father with a drone bomb how would you feel?" It's a stomach-churning question to have to answer straight, but when sung with a beautiful, soft wail it offers a profound moment of reflection.
"If I filled up your mass graves and attacked your countries under false premise, I'm sorry," the soon-to-be vanguard of art pop, Anohni sings even more incisively later on the same song "Crisis." Nearly every moment on her debut album, Hopeless, released Friday, feels this poignant.
The album's 11 tracks are heavy with the political portents of Bob Dylan's more apocalyptic tunes, but have a unique sensuality and abstract musical presence of an FKA Twigs. Every song is as beautiful and brutal as possible.
For all those people loving pop's new political direction, but who didn't feel Beyoncé's Lemonade cut deep enough, let Hopeless feed you. Consider it an emergency rations air dropped during lean times.
Breaking down the math, lyrics first: You may have heard Anohni's name around Oscar season. The singer was nominated for her song with J. Ralph, "Manta Ray," a beautiful ballad illustrating the horrors of climate change. But she got snubbed from the award show's bill, in favor of grunge icon turned dad rock virtuoso, Dave Grohl. She used the moment to shine a harsh light on the way our culture regularly overlooks trans performers to highlight celebrities fit a more more traditional persona and aesthetic.
Hopeless broadens the tragic frustration of that song and letter across 11 tracks, condemning a range of political ills — sexism, capitalism's inherent greed, racism and war. However, unlike much of Dylan's cautious political poetry, Anohni names her targets — President Barack Obama, the American Dream, the Chinese and the Saudis, the North Koreans and the Nigerians. Save her music's specific environmental focus, it actually may edge closer to what Nina Simone and Rage Against the Machine have created.
"Rage is a really fun place to dance from — expressions of anger sublimated into something beautiful are invigorating, especially if you feel like you're telling the truth," Anohni told Pitchfork in an article published Thursday. "It's a great way to get energy and catch the momentum of a movement ... I wanted to do something that was gonna go down fighting. Something more vigorous. Something that would compel people who are already in that mindset to take action."
The beats: However, despite the arresting political critique, the songs still have an infectious bounce to them. Chalk that up to the "exhilarating and exuberant" beats of Hudson Mohawke, as Anohni described them to Pitchfork. The Glasgow-born producer has recently played hitmaker for Kanye West, Azealia Banks and Pusha T. He brings a set of A1 R&B beats to the project. They float like Frank Ocean ballads, but still have some FKA sting to them.
It's a stark sonic departure from Anohni's previous project, Anthony and the Johnsons, which she pursued for four albums. That group tended toward soulful and organic-sounding baroque pop. Her new beats are wiry, skeletal.
"It is a relief to sing to a synchronized beat, it sent me free in a way, not having to negotiate that aspect of the feel of a song, so you can be like a dolphin jumping in the waves," Anohni told NPR.
On tracks like "Drone Bomb Me," which Anohni previously described as "a love song written from the perspective of a young girl in Afghanistan whose family has been executed by unmanned U.S. drones" in a statement, these dizzying melodic dives play up the urgency of the lyrical content in way that feels strangely disarming.
Hopeless are love songs with political import. They're dance tracks with sobering warnings to deliver. In many ways these seems like contradictions in terms, but somehow Anohni has nailed this seemingly impossible blend. The album she's created will likely serve as the gold standard every other artist seeking to blend politics with pop will have to meet from here on out.