Throwaway Style: On THEESatisfaction's Sub Pop Albums and the Loneliness of Being First

Throwaway Style, Rewind, Local Music, Album Reviews
03/04/2022
Martin Douglas
photo by Dave Lichterman

Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, the first Thursday of (just about) every new month on KEXP.org.

In celebration of International Women’s Month, the 10-year anniversary of 'awE naturalE,' and our upcoming limited series podcast Fresh off the Spaceship, we will be diving deep into the Sub Pop-issued albums of one of the Black Constellation collective’s foundational groups, THEESatisfaction.


Most of the time, being first is a lonely road. It’s great to be early to a new or innovative sound, design, presentation, art form. You are credited as a pioneer, lauded to the high heavens, and sometimes even compensated accordingly. Being first is the tree falling in the forest without a soul around for miles. For whatever reason, this is usually my second thought when I reach for a THEESatisfaction album from my record shelf or pull something from my 1TB external hard drive nearly filled to the brim with music.

My first thought is always some variation of: “God, what an explosion of creativity.”

The creative partnership of Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White (who now goes by SassyBlack) — who will heretofore be referred to in this article respectively as Stas and Sassy — from 2008’s That’s Weird through their various albums and now-impossible-to-find digital-only projects (“mixtapes,” for us readers of a certain age), represented a flourishment of profound musical and thematic ideas. The deep exploration of colonialism, the rumination on Black queer relationships — the latter still a frustratingly rare perspective articulated in much of modern media, let alone the low-key conservative world of mainstream hip-hop and R&B.

Then, Sub Pop signed them partly on the strength of their show-stealing work on Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up and it seemed as though they were poised to take the world by storm. 

And they almost did.

It’s easy in hindsight to frame awE naturalE in purely sociopolitical terms in order to illustrate how far ahead of the curve Stas and Sassy actually were. They centered their identity right alongside their abilities — Black, queer women in hip-hop, entirely self-produced when they were unsigned and responsible for their own musical direction — way before the culture of identity politics became standard issue. They decried white Jesus and fascism long before it became Twitter discourse du jour.

Musically — again, with the benefit of looking backward — there wasn’t a robust musical vocabulary for what THEESatisfaction were doing, or the singularity of their shared vision. So they were tagged as “neo-soul” or “Afrofuturist,” which may be in the outfield of truth if you only listened to their big single “QueenS” on repeat for an hour and immediately tried to write a review.

Helmed by Stas on the production end, the instrumentals for awE naturalE span an impressive range; the mournful and somehow also thunderous boom-bap of “Earthseed,” the minimalist funk of side chick lament “Bitch,” the Earth, Wind & Fire-sampling “Sweat.” I’ve long held the belief that sweat is the nectar of the gods, whether we’re fighting, fleeing, or fucking. “Sweat” is a sexy song drawn from the very human element of the primal feeling of desire.

Stas has noted the brief song structures on awE naturalE and their mixtapes were inspired by punk bands like Bad Brains, and that inspiration most certainly can also be heard in their vehement and sometimes righteously indignant rebukes of oppression in its shape-shifting and multitudinous forms.

Her production approach also manifests itself on the album’s two instrumentals, opening track “awE” (a rave-up intro which brings the energy levels up from jump) and “Juiced,” which begins with Stas joyously calling out, “my turn,” the track languid, mellow, kind of peculiar, and full of the golden warmth gleaming throughout the album. The feel of the album is augmented greatly by the one-minute ballad “Crash,” featuring a stutter-step of a piano line and Stas and Sassy harmonizing binary code. 

Though not directly inspired by punk rock in this way, the lyrical direction of THEESat’s work has a lot in common with many bands working in the form, particularly when it comes to matters of social justice. On “Deeper,” Stas subtly calls out flat-earthers and speaks to the importance of her Blackness; on the aforementioned “Earthseed,” she conjures imagery that was probably considered dystopian a decade ago but in 2022 just sounds like a normal Thursday. Preceding Stas’ raps, Sassy sings beautifully of a changing world (and not for the better), asking no one in particular but everyone in theory, “What are the ideals that you hold back? / What kind of support do you lack?”

Sassy’s contributions to awE naturalE are particularly stunning. Her voice is perfectly suited for Stas’ production and the talented guest musicians featured on the album; it’s an instrument which rings out in the open air just as easily as it unfolds warm and comfortably like a wool blanket. Sassy's singing adds a profound weight to songs like “Needs” and “Extinct,” and a palpable sense of lightness to the lustful jam “Sweat.” 

I’m reluctant to call Sassy’s performance on the album a “star-making turn,” because awE naturalE cast such a penetrating spotlight on both Sassy and Stas, but there are so many choice Sassy highlights on the duo’s Sub Pop debut.

From the opening words of EarthEE, where Sassy sings on “Prophetic Perfection,” the sheer ambition of the album is felt immediately. The lyrics read like a fable or a folk tale: “Said the bird to the water / ‘Can I take a sip? Can I dip my toes in it?’” As the album outspreads into its full form, a startling breadth of musical forms and lyrical motifs reveal themselves. 

In fact, I don’t think there’s an album I’ve listened to in the past number of years that continues to reveal itself after nearly seven years of repeat listens quite like EarthEE

“Planet for Sale” is a spacey, spectral R&B track that explores climate change and capitalism’s role in this 3rd rock from the sun being potentially uninhabitable for humans in less than 200 years. “Nature’s Candy” is a flirty love/lust song, and “Universal Perspective” finds truth through a proggy arpeggio and an off-center bounce seemingly generated by a spacecraft computer.

And these are perhaps the sturdiest links between the THEESat of awE naturalE and the group that made the truly incredible EarthEE. Their approach to songcraft and production — alongside Erik Blood, who mixed the duo’s Sub Pop debut — had deepened in substantial ways on the way to releasing their 2015 opus. 

For starters, not that the THEESat of awE naturalE sounded disjointed at all, but EarthEE finds Sassy and Stas creating an undeniable synergy as artists. They don’t perform in parts and occasionally harmonize; they perform in harmony, in sync. Part of that is due to both members contributing to the production and working closely with Blood to create these songs. Part of it could be that Stas’ vocals equate to much more than rapping and singing; they’re world-building. Not many rappers can do what she does on “WerQ” (featuring magnificent bass playing by Meshell Ndegeocello) or “Post Black Anyway,” fully working its way into the grooves of the song. The flow is scaled back, much less rapping for the sake of rapping and more intoning for the sake of the composition.

Quite a few songs on the album — particularly “Post Black Anyway” and the astounding “Recognition” — don’t need to exist as traditional, capital-S Songs; they create a mood, an atmosphere, a feeling. They build on the overall whole of the piece, constructing each part of the album as building blocks of the narrative. Its themes grab hold of you and urge you to live with them.

A segment of the rich narrative built on EarthEE is provided by the guest rappers guesting on the project. “Blandland” is a sharp admonition of the co-opting, the appropriation, the theft of Black art for the comfort and profit gained by upholding white supremacy. Stas spits arguably the best verse of her THEESat tenure, internal rhyme patterns skipping in and out of the solemn beat, production heavily smudged with her fingerprints. 

Ishmael Butler, who guested twice on awE naturalE, also recites his best verse in his featured turns on THEESatisfaction’s work, rapping about a culture built from scratch by Black hands and “[sold] back to us with the cold markups.” He deftly acknowledges Hitler Youth haircuts and people who decry a very particular strain of white privilege while simultaneously earning huge from it. He opens his amazing verse with a mark that leaves a scar on the brain: “A story loosely based on us / Without no pain and thus the main essence.” 

On the album’s title track — also featuring Ish, who pays tribute to his pretty, pro-Black mom in his first bar — the Central District’s foremost poet Porter Ray slips into romance as well as he does grief or the thrill of the hustle or the flyest streetwear elsewhere in his work, showing that twinkle in his eye without sacrificing a bit of his street cred or writerly bonafides. “Fuck a club, let’s make love in the bathtub,” Porter sings in the highlight couplet of his verse. “Warm water, lighting candles while we pass bud.”

The particular synergy of Stas and Sassy is brought about in interesting ways on the album; “Fetch/Catch” clearly evocative of the narcotic effect of Screw Tapes, Sassy dropping a rap verse of her own, clearly reveling in the joy of getting some bars off. The aforementioned “Recognition” starts as chant-poetry over an African folk motif sounding like it could be either from the future or 1000 years old and widens its focus to an expansive second movement before curling back up into its original musical form.

Stas and Sassy were in a romantic partnership as well as a creative one but broke up around the time they began recording EarthEE. “I Read You” was reportedly the first song that the duo recorded for the album, and it contains the hard-earned pathos to earn its slot as its final track — and ultimately the last mark of THEESatisfaction. A heightened sense of climactic emotion guides the song; Stas rapping about hiding her frustration, Sassy singing of having read the story plenty of times. You can hear the feeling in Stas’ words, the soul being wrung out of Sassy’s voice.

Maybe they knew it was the end of THEESat before the end actually came.

Of course, the end is never really the end. The one thing about the death of anything is that life goes on; and if anything, the shuttering of THEESatisfaction is merely the beginning for the musical careers of Sassy and Stas. Sassy has built a wide-ranging career not beholden to any one genre. She’s tried her hand at soul, rap, funk, electronic dance music. Her 2020 EP Stuck, in spite of its brevity, was (in this correspondent’s humble opinion) her best and most focused work to date. Not to mention that Sassy has many incredible projects going outside of music, including Emerald Jett, her musical written for the 5th Avenue Theatre.

Stas has pared her rapping style down to its essence and, in turn, has become one of the best rappers to touch a mic right now — dropping a classic slate of mini-albums spanning the expanse of breakup records (S’Women, of which Stas has stated a second installment is imminent), woozy R&B (Sang Stasia, just as a flex), and a legitimate pandemic masterpiece (the Miles Davis-referencing On the Quarner). Her latest single, "Three 6 Stasia," sounds like she's rapping from a fugue state.

The afterlife of what was once THEESatisfaction proves Stas and Sassy from an individual perspective have always been far too talented to be defined by the two albums they created and toured on Sub Pop’s budget (even before said budget was even a distant possibility). But good lord, those LPs are such a consummate reminder of the brilliance in motion when these two artists were at the height of their collective talents. Even if it did take much of the world too long to catch on.


New, News, and Notable

News: Day In Day Out’s 2022 Lineup is Heavy on the Slappers

Last year, in lieu of Bumbershoot being in music festival limbo and there being a late summer reprieve of pandemic hysteria, Day In Day Out held its inaugural festival to widespread praise in Seattle. Entering its second year, DIDO’s lineup is absolutely fucking stacked, headed up by groups like Japanese Breakfast, the National, Mitski, Turnstile, and Animal Collective. Normcore icon Mac DeMarco will be playing a set of songs from his beloved works 2 and Rock ‘n Roll Night Club. JPEGMAFIA will be pissing off every police officer within earshot. Two of the best acts to come out of Seattle in decades, Shabazz Palaces and California transplants La Luz, will be providing key Northwest representation. An array of local stars will be on the decks for DJ sets, including but most certainly not limited to Shaina Shepherd, Beverly Crusher, Tres Leches, Emily Nokes of Tacocat, and our own DJ Abbie.

DIDO 2022 will emanate from Seattle Center’s Fischer Green Pavilion (basically the backyard of KEXP) August 12-14. Tickets are on sale now.

Short Takes: HeZza FeZza - Nomadic Nebula

Who says you can never come back home? World-traveled singer/songwriter/musician/composer HeZza FeZza was born and raised in Seattle before embarking on a nomadic journey which found her returning to the States. The wide-ranging eclecticism of her work is indicative of their travels, collecting a knapsack of influences ranging from Alice Coltrane and Minnie Ripperton to FKA Twigz and the Black Constellation. Speaking of the Constellation, Erik Blood produced and engineered Nomadic Nebula, HeZza’s ambitious new full-length, and also plays bass and synthesizer, while Seattle stalwarts like Marquetta Miller (click here and scroll down to hear and read about the Breaks and Swells' newest single) and Pickwick’s Alex Westcoat also contribute to the album.

Nomadic Nebula was written on piano shortly before the pandemic reached full-tilt, and produced by Blood during our worldwide shutdown summer. Opener “Beautiful Morning” evokes stately, blooming ballardy, while “Kiki” is a psychedelic reggae set piece. The album ranges from the stark and emotional (“Saudades”) to the thunderously soulful (“Dream On Dreamer,” “Gazillion,” “Tender”), and around to lo-fi-ish indie rock (“Like Everything is Happening at Once”). And when things scale to its highest point, HeZza busts out a falsetto that would have probably even made Ripperton raise her eyebrows. Nomadic Nebula is a startlingly original slate of avant-futurist soul, as we move farther into the future and our souls get even wearier.


Live and Loud: This Month's Recommended Shows

March 5: Acid Tongue, Peyote Ugly, & Biblioteka at High Dive

March 10: Weep Wave, Actionesse, & Faith in Strangers at Cafe Racer

March 12: King Youngblood, Jaiden Grayson, & Lara Levi at Conor Byrne Pub

March 16: Mudhoney & Tripwires at The Crocodile

March 17: Fluung, Soft Boiled, & Trash Sound Conglomerate at Sunset Tavern

March 19: Horse Feathers at Madame Lou's

March 19: Prism Bitch, Monsterwatch, & Black Ends at Tractor Tavern

March 24: Ducks Ltd. & Sea Lemon at Sunset Tavern

March 25: Mt. Fog, Oh My Eyes, Adriana McCassim, & Meredith Lane at Conor Byrne Pub

March 29: Karl Blau, Generifus, & Sister Wife at Tractor Tavern

April 1: The Black Tones at ALMA Tacoma

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