TRUE ARTISTE Despite her well-received 2008 debut, this year's Master of My Make-Believe feels like
Santigold's coming out party.
We, as music listeners, tend to think of the business of music creation as one of inspiration, perspiration, meditation, and perhaps inebriation. In reality, it's a grind, mentally and physically, and the longer you play the game, the more susceptible you are to its attacks. We hear songs filled with fist-in-the-air power and assume that this is music's psychic gift to us, when so often those moments of empowerment are an artist's offering of strength to him/herself. Santi White, assuming the nom du guerre Santigold, has so far crammed two long-players with ode after ode to her own ability to persevere. Her gift is making universal the plight of the platinum-selling pop star, through the strange and incomprehensible transmogrification that has resulted in her bizarrely powerful tuneage.
It makes sense that White's music would be so resolutely about the business of making and selling music; after all, she has a long CV in the biz, having been an A&R executive (at Epic in the '90s, she failed to convince her superiors to sign a then-unknown Mos Def). She didn't step out as a solo artist until nearly a decade in the trenches, both in bands and as a for-hire songwriter. It was as the latter that she, at first, seemed on the verge of making her name, when top-notch tunes from her pen wound up on albums by mid-'00s almost-stars like Lily Allen and Ashlee Simpson. There is a direct line between the melodic bounce of her work in her mid-'00s Philly band Stiffed, the fluid catchiness of songs like Allen's "Littlest Things" and Simpson's "Outta My Head," and the full-on dance-rock-pop that would propel her towards the top with her 2008 homonymous solo debut.
The epiphany of Santogold manifests itself in the way that White presented defiant music that still foregrounded her own solo jitters, especially in the chorus of single "L.E.S. Artistes": "I say I hope it will be worth what I give up." Clearly what White "gave up" was a normal life. Her first instinct was to duck the attention that a solo career brought — as she also sang in "L.E.S. Artistes," "Tell it straight/I'm trying to build a wall." And indeed, a large part of the Santigold essence is one of avoiding fame's probe. To wit, White doesn't conduct many interviews; after weeks of teasing, her management turned down a phoner for this piece. But White tends to speak with actions; in 2010 she, along with a number of other celebrities and musicians, including Jessica Biel and Lupe Fiasco, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro as part of a project to bring attention to the global clean-water crisis. Listening to Master of My Make-Believe (Atlantic), the more assertive record she embarked on after that episode, it's clear that the mountain-vaulting experience had an effect on this oft-reticent performer.