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Dessa: Breaking The Rules Of Rap

The Minneapolis rapper known as Dessa doesn't have a typical hip-hop profile, but her talent more than compensates. Maggie Wander, 28, graduated from the University of Minnesota at 20, and then worked as a medical writer. She co-founded an a cappella group called the Boy Sopranos. She's an outspoken fan of Jeff Buckley and the kind of arty alt-rockers he inspired. And, under the name Dessa, Wander just released a terrific hip-hop album called A Badly Broken Code.

Dessa is the only woman in Doomtree, a predominantly white and punk-identified Minneapolis hip-hop collective whose best-known member is the African-American rapper P.O.S. I'm here to tell you that Dessa smokes P.O.S., even though she breaks all of the rap rules. Not because she breaks the rules; her clean timbre and stated preference for melody over rhythm don't bode well. But as it happens, Dessa is a fluent lyricist who really knows how to propel words with beats.

In a time when most lyricists, especially outside hip-hop, purvey impenetrable poetry, Dessa is generally very clear, which isn't to say she avoids metaphor or feels obliged to nail down every detail. She recalls an old-fashioned high-quality singer-songwriter like Joni Mitchell or Rosanne Cash -- just one who's decided that hip-hop beats, tolerantly and inclusively conceived, are a modern lyricist's most effective delivery system. My favorite track on A Badly Broken Code is a slow one I passed by at first -- "Go Home," in which she sends a married male friend away before things get out of hand. I'd love to hear Rosanne Cash's arrangement.

Uncommonly for hip-hop, most of Dessa's songs are about relationships, and not just romantic ones; family and friends also get her detailed and insightful attention. Because she's a hip-hopper, she reserves special feelings for her musical buddies in Doomtree -- "There's no love / like crew love," she singsongs. But because she's a hip-hopper, she's also not above bragging a little. She's got a right.

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Robert Christgau
Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.