It defies reason that South African rave-rap sensation Die Antwoord should write enjoyable music. But for all the gross feelings that will creep up on listeners after hearing the group’s re-released debut $O$ (available in modified online form since 2009), the album is actually kind of catchy and unforgettable — at least for the insuppressible dirty newness of its sound.
Thematically, Die Antwoord celebrates the same cultural wasteland as Ke$ha — albeit multilingually, with a heavy accent and all references to glitter and whiskey replaced by straight-up sex talk. It’s a march of vulgarity only occasionally interrupted by a curse-covered dis, boast or gleeful yell of “I’m a ninja!”
The trio’s lyrics — mostly delivered by frontman “Ninja” (real name Watkin Tudor Jones) in a casual, over-enunciated Eminem style — would make any self-respecting prescription-drugged misogynist blush. There are the veiled sexual references, like “Even though you lying down / I can make you stand up” in “Evil Boy,” and then there’s the wide-open raunch of “Beat Boy,” with lines about gushing privates, hospital room BDSM and intersex conditions not suitable for repetition in any publication.
When toned down a bit, the grime parade works — blunt, brash opener “In Your Face” stomps in with a killer beat and a badass monophonic chorus of “Jealousy makes you nah-sty / In your face!” It’s a headfirst dive into Ninja’s and sometime-singer Yolandi’s thick South African speech, in which nearly every “fuck” comes out a “fook.”
“Enter The Ninja” follows up with worlds of videogame references and a handful of Japanese cultural throwouts. Yolandi squeaks, “Ay-yay-yay, I am your butterfly” at a pitch right out of “Yoshi Story,” Ninja trills a fast-paced rap and a background of computer bleeps manages to gather it into something resembling a song.
But “Rich Bitch” starts to turn up the tacky. The track is Yolandi’s proclamation that her newfound success hasn’t changed the fact that she’s still an asshole (“I do my own thing when the phone rings … Only speak to people I wanna speak to”). It’s one big trashy whine, but something about its obnoxiously whirring harmony and the whispers in the background holds your attention.
“She Makes Me A Killer” also occupies the middle ground between crude-funny and outright disgusting. Stealing back the spotlight, Ninja uses a few sexual anecdotes to teach listeners why they shouldn’t marry a pretty woman. The poor guy can’t understand how his horny nature makes things go from “hunky-fucking-dory” to him getting beat up and ball-broken by the ladies. Explicit it is, but it’s still hard not to laugh when, over a frantic synth shimmer, he offers a girl he’s with to his DJ and lets out a panic-stricken “I thought Barney said sharing is caring!”
But when the nasty takes over, $O$ loses its sense of fun. “Fish Paste” is a four-minute insult about somebody’s mom’s vagina, and it would be ill-advised to weed through the thick vowels and rolling “r”s of “Beat Boy” to find the song’s lyrics.
Die Antwoord can make a good beat and has a sort of trashy appeal, but everything has its limit. Embarrassingly explicit at times, the group doesn’t understand moderation or social mores. But the bizarre gratuity that makes it unlistenable is also its saving grace: As infectious, penis-fixated South African scenester rap groups go, Die Antwoord is the best.