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"Does anyone know the words?" the artist born Santi White and formerly known as Santogold asked the audience Monday at New York City's Bowery Ballroom, where she previewed much of the new album. One fan said he did, but when Santigold passed him the mic, hoping he'd jar her memory, she found him to be of little help.
"Go ahead, you know you want," the fan said, starting strong but then trailing off. "Something, something, something."
Eventually, someone slipped Santigold an iPhone pointed at a handy lyrics site, and the singer, her three-piece backing band and pair of backup dancers were able to carry on with their encore. On Santigold's debut, "You'll Find a Way" has a serrated post-punk feel reflective of her kinship to groups like the Slits, but Monday, it had a rounder, smooved-out dancehall throb more consistent with her new material.
The encore episode felt like a quintessential Santigold moment, and not merely because she fell back on technology -- a big part of her music and future-is-now mentality. The fact that no one in the club seemed to know the words suggested that, on some level, what Santigold says is less important than how she puts it across. She's a Babel-toppling popster -- a proponent of indie rockers, punks, hip-hop heads, club kids, dancehall grinders, dub disciples and even Top 40 consumers confusing their languages and coming out the better for it.
Santigold isn't the first to imagine the possibilities of what's become known as the post-racial world. Her 2008 debut followed two albums from MIA, the artist to whom she's most often compared, but Monday night the difference between the two was striking.
Maya Arulpragasam is a provocateur keen on holding up a fun-house mirror and showing us how globalism and technology have warped and distorted things and generally made life noisier. If she's after a utopian pan-cultural world, she's trying to shame or batter us into making it. Santigold, meanwhile, hit the Bowery beaming. On opener "Go!" from the new album, her twin dancers -- dressed in ruffles and neon fringes, looking like Caribbean prep-school students gone to Vegas -- draped the smiling singer in a gold lame cape, anointing a most genial queen.
"People want my power," Santigold sang, seemingly uncorrupted. "And they want my station."
What people might really want is her sense of self-empowerment. On "Disparate Youth," a bass-heavy reggae standout brought to life by Santi's dancers with black-and-white parasols, the chorus goes: "Oh, we set our dreams to carry us/ and if they don't fly, we will run." Another new one, "God from the Machine," puts it even more explicitly: "You can make it alone if you try."
Since she's at the start of her tour cycle, Santigold hasn't yet tightened up all the new tunes, and she book-ended some of the Make-Believe songs with apologies and sincere thank-yous. For someone so jacked with creativity, she's not a fierce performer. Whatever vitriol made her write "Big Mouth," her apparent attack on supposed style biters Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, wasn't on display when she played the single to close her set. What came across were the big island riddims, booty-quake dance moves, jock-jam synths and irrepressible personality of a true professional pushing to reclaim her place in pop, nebulous though it may be.
She's a creator, as she told us from the start: The thrill is to make it up. For her, performing it seems more a lark or a goof, though given her level of conviction, those aren't the right terms. Anyone out there know the words? Speak clearly into the mic.
Watch Santigold's "Big Mouth" Video
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