How to earn my keep, how to clean my kill.
Some nights I still can't sleep,
The past rolls back, I can see us still.
You've learned how to hold your own, how to stack your stones,
But the history's thick.
Children aren't as simple as we'd like to think."
Dessa (born Margret Wander) is an underground singer and hip-hop artist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her lyrics vary from sharp and cutting to poetic and narrative. She is known for the feminist themes in several of her songs and has been described as a mix of Mos Def and Ani DiFranco.
She has released three albums: 2010's A Badly Broken Code, 2013's Parts of Speech, and 2018's Chime, as well as an album-length collection of re-recordings called Castor, The Twin in 2011. She has also released two EPs, False Hopes and IDES, as well as a handful of non-album singles, including a recording of "Congratulations" for The Hamilton Mixtape and a song dedicated to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen entitled "Who's Yellen Now?" penned in response to a call for a Hamilton-esque musical about Yellen's life.
She is a member of Doomtree, a hip-hop collective consisting of her and fellow artists P.O.S, Cecil Otter, Sims, Mike Mictlan, Lazerbeak, and Paper Tiger. In addition to music, she has also published two poetry compilations, 2009's Spiral Bound and 2013's A Pound of Steam, as well as an autobiographical collection of short stories, 2018's My Own Devices.
- 2005 - False Hopes (EP)
- 2010 - A Badly Broken Code (Album)
- 2011 - Castor, The Twin (Album)
- 2013 - Parts of Speech (Album)
- 2018 - Chime (Album)
- 2021 - IDES (EP)
Her work provides examples of:
- Age-Progression Song:
- "Children's Work" chronicles Dessa's relationship with her younger brother, recalling how they recognized each other as kindred spirits immediately and relied on each other as they grew up.
- "The Chaconne" is about the life of a gifted violinist, from his youth practicing in the living room to his late adulthood after finding success but alienating his loved ones.
- Album Closure: Chime, which varies from introspective rap bangers to soft pop songs, ends with "I Hope I'm Wrong," a sad song about her grandmother's death.
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Deconstructed in "Alibi", where the narrator is soothing a woman whose husband broke the law.
- All Take and No Give: In "Seamstress", she uses the allegory of sewing up dolls to explain how she becomes invested in "fixing" her toxic lovers to an unhealthy extent.When I ran out of thread, I couldn't let go
But that's not sewing, that's just poking holes
- Badass Creed: The creed of the seamstress in "Seamstress", a serial fixer of her broken lovers, is "you're pretty in pieces" - that is, you're most attractive when you're in need of fixing.
- Bait-and-Switch: “Shrimp” ends with Dessa lamenting that she’s “always a bridesmaid, never an...ASTRONAUT!”
- Boastful Rap:
- In "Dutch", she lays out her aspirations for success while bragging about her talents as a writer and her dedication to her craft.
- "The Bullpen" is a Female Empowerment Song in which she flaunts her unprecedented success in the very male-dominated field of hip-hop.
- In "Skeleton Key", she inhabits the persona of a traveler who can unlock any door as a metaphor for her resilience and intellect.
- "Fighting Fish" is a stream of boastful raps about her prowess as a writer, rapper, and overall badass person.
- "Crew" has one about her music skills partway through, "If the hinges creak, then break the door down / All I need is a beat, I break a four-count".
- Break-Up Song:
"We've been living, too long, too close, and I'm ready to let you go. I'm ready, so call off your ghost."
- "Matches to Paper Dolls" is one of the "we keep hurting each other every time we try to make this work" variety.
- "Call Off Your Ghost" is a heartbroken plea to the memories of her ex to let her move on fully, particularly after seeing his new partner.
- The Caretaker: "Seamstress" is a somewhat dark take on the idea of a caretaker, about a woman who cares for her broken lovers so thoroughly it hurts them both.Plus, I never did need for a pattern
Just some good restraints and my bedside manner.
- The Charmer: The narrator of "Dear Marie" betrayed the friend to whom the song is addressed by "smiling bright for everyone but her", charming away her loved ones and even enabling her partner's unfaithfulness out of her own selfishness.
- Cool Big Sis: "Children's Work", which was written for her younger brother Max, describes how she took him under her wing and provided him with companionship and understanding during his tumultuous childhood.
- Cloudcuckoolander's Minder:
- "Children's Work" is about her protective attitude towards her younger brother, who struggled with communication and being misunderstood by adults.The little mystic, and his handler.
- "Annabelle" is about living with someone suffering from Sanity Slippage and struggling to ground them in reality.
- "The Man I Knew" is a song about a decade-long relationship with a drug addict and her efforts to keep him healthy and sane throughout his addiction.
- "Children's Work" is about her protective attitude towards her younger brother, who struggled with communication and being misunderstood by adults.
- Domestic Abuse: "Dixon's Girl" is about the narrator striking up a friendship with the lover of a famous man who's abusive behind closed doors.You gotta be big to treat pretty girls bad.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Dessa frequently references her struggles with alcoholism in her lyrics:
- Said by name in "Seamstress" when she discusses how the sadness she's been trying to suppress with alcohol is forcing itself to the fore:I came to write a letter, but my pen was full of hymns
I came to drown a sorrow, it seems they've learned to swim
- In "Mineshaft II", the narrator's ex laments that she's been "drinking something awful" to cope with the sorry state of her life.
- In "The Man I Knew", she questions whether she even has the right to criticize her lover for being addicted to drugs since the only real difference between him using drugs to cope and her using alcohol to cope is legality.
- Said by name in "Seamstress" when she discusses how the sadness she's been trying to suppress with alcohol is forcing itself to the fore:
- Excessive Mourning: "If & When" is about a widow who refuses to accept her husband's death and finds herself driven to self-destructive behavior in her grief.
- Framing Device: "Dear Marie" is structured as a letter the narrator is writing to Marie.
- Friendless Background: In "Children's Work", she describes how her precociousness and solemn attitude alienated her from just about everyone else before she found a kindred spirit in her brother, saying "Before you came along, I was a lone cub."
- Functional Addict: “The Man I Knew” is about a friend of Dessa’s who managed to keep his life together despite being addicted to cocaine.
- Heel Realization: "Dear Marie" is about a woman who realizes for the first time how much she's hurt her loyal friend Marie, and writes a letter apologizing.
- Hourglass Plot: In “The Lamb,” the narrator finds herself in a position of power over a sick relative who abused her in childhood, and has to restrain herself from using the opportunity to hurt him.Now our roles reverse, your table's turning now...
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: A variation in "Call Off Your Ghost" in that she's trying to move on, but her memories of the time she had with her ex are keeping her from fully doing it, compounded by knowing that he himself has moved on."I think she lives around here. I see her almost daily. All I can do to stop myself from saying something crazy. I don't think badly of her. I hope she makes you happy. It's just a lot to ask to watch your future walking past me."
- The Masochism Tango: "Matches to Paper Dolls" is about a couple who are too attached/attracted to each other to leave even though the relationship hurts both of them.
- Master of Unlocking: The protagonist of "Skeleton Key" builds a career out of opening any lock that people are willing to pay to have opened.
- Motor Mouth: When Dessa really gets into rap-mode, she's scarily quick with her rhymes. For example, "Matches to Paper Dolls", "Mineshaft", and "Press On". Lampshaded in “Shrimp.”Talk real fast when I get nervous
Rap real fast, but that’s on purpose.
- My Future Self and Me: The narrator visits her past self to ask for a favor in "Mineshaft II".
- Never a Self-Made Woman: In "Dixon's Girl", a song about the lover of an abusive celebrity, she laments that "Dixon's girl" is only known as "the wife of a famous man" despite her own artistic merits.
- The One That Got Away: Heavily implied in "Call Off Your Ghost," as although she's trying to move on, seeing her ex's new partner has stirred too many memories for her to do it."I know that jealousy is a perfect waste of time, but left to my devices, I've spent far too long wasting mine."
- Relationship Revolving Door: “Matches to Paper Dolls” is about a couple who have a toxic relationship but are too attracted to one other to call it quits for good, causing them to get caught in an endless breakup-makeup cycle.We’ve been lovers and strangers and friends who get angry.
- Sanity Slippage: "If & When" has the narrator burning more and more things to keep the candle alight as she waits for her estranged husband to come home, indicating her struggle to cope with her distress.
- Second-Person Narration: "Mineshaft II" is structured as a message from the narrator to her younger self warning her about what the future holds for her love life, and Dessa thus refers to herself as "you" for the majority of the song.
- Sequel Song: "Mineshaft", released on Dessa's 2005 EP False Hopes, deals with a painful break-up. "Mineshaft II", released five years later on A Badly Broken Code, deals with the ex calling her up years later and asking for forgiveness.
- Shoutout: The chorus of "Everything Floats" (which the title is derived from) is a line from It.
- The Smurfette Principle: In "The Bullpen", she celebrates the success she's found in the Minneapolitan hip-hop scene despite being a woman in a male-dominated industry as well as a rap collective otherwise comprised entirely of men.
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: In "Shrimp", she substitutes "bitch" for an alternative last-minute:6’2” in my highest kicks
Dolled up, I’m the baddest- person!
- Take Me Instead: In "Children's Work", she recalls seeing her beloved younger brother get gravely injured and wishing he didn't have to suffer by saying "When the wagon tipped, I prayed over your body/ I asked God to take the damage out on me."
- True Companions:
- "Crew" is about the close companionship she found with the members of Doomtree, her rap collective.
- In "Alibi", the narrator informs the wife of a criminal that no matter how tumultuous her life becomes, she can always seek refuge with her.If you need a place to sleep tonight, well, that's what family's for.
- UST: "Go Home" is about the narrator and a close friend struggling to reconcile the feelings that have grown between them with the fact that they can't be together due to one of them being in a relationship.
- We Are as Mayflies: In "Momento Mori", she recalls the fleeting but meaningful moments she shared with a lover while pondering the point of their short and insignificant human existence.
- Wise Beyond Their Years: "Children's Work" is about how both the narrator and her little brother are wise in different ways, which surprises the adults in their life but causes them to become kindred spirits.Children aren't as simple as we'd like to think.