South African rap/rave crew Die Antwoord are back with their fourth (and possibly last) album: Mount Ninji And The Good Time Kid. In this EP, the group seem to tread the line between commercial and comical, with confusing results. They constantly second guess their listeners, laughing at us and themselves through a collection of strange and surreal music and interludes. I found it extremely difficult to analyse this album purely on its musical content, because – simply put – I don’t think I understand the music. Some of it is so wacky that it can only be listened to to be understood; words won’t do. What I will say is that by the end of this album, I was left asking myself whether this group are fake, frivolous, or just far cleverer than me.
At first listen, this album seems nothing new to someone who generally knows what kind of music Die Antwoord put out. Some of the tracks on Mount Ninji, especially the ones that appear at the beginning of the album, pander to the classic patterns that their fans are used to. For example, they sing about taboo subjects; Daddy explores the delicate line between paternal love and a sugar-daddy, combining requests for the “pyjamas with bananas” and more overt sexual images. Similarly, Banana Brain combines rap with a frantic dance beat, as per their Zef mantra, and the lyrics are as strange as one would expect: “Boobie one, boobie two/ Bouncing Like a Looney Tune/ Booty boomin’, cookie juice/ Gushin’ out your coochie, boo.” These lyrics highlight the main dilemma of trying to understand this album: how serious are Die Antwoord? Are they mocking the overtly sexual and often unimaginative lyrics of other rap artists in this song, for instance, or is there no irony in it?
On the one hand, it’s hard to take any of the songs particularly seriously when they’re juxtaposed with tracks like Wings On My Penis. Sung by what sounds like a very young boy, credited as Lil Tommy Terror, this is a simple track about – you guessed it – wishing to have wings on your penis. Rather than appearing as a metaphor for anything, or a political statement of any kind, this song typifies the strange-for-the-sake-of-it vibe of the album. It’s uncomfortable to hear a young boy use the language that Lil Tommy Terror does, from racial slurs to blatant sexual references. It’s also weird to want wings on your willy. Knowing what I know about the group, however, it’s not weird that this track is here. This is typical of a lot of Die Antwoord songs; most are interesting in one way, but completely obvious in another. Rats Rule, for example, which features Jack Black singing from the perspective of a rat, is so completely random that it’s predictable. Of course Jack Black is singing with them (he is a long time contributor after all) and of course they’re singing a defence of rats, because that’s the unusual thing to do. It seems, in this group’s case, that a legacy of doing the unexpected ultimately leads to people expecting you to do it.
If every track was like that, it would undermine the album as a whole. However, there are songs that genuinely surprised me. Street Lights, for example, is comparatively tame and quite en vogue at the minute. Similar in certain ways to artists like DESIIGNER, this track is moody, atmospheric, and not at all unpleasant to listen to. Yes, it’s about killing a man in a fight below a street light, but there are few to no references to genitalia. So, is this done in all seriousness? Or do Die Antwoord know that this music is popular, and are they mocking it by emulating it? Next track Darkling is just as serious in tone – “Sometimes I get sad because I don’t know who my mummy or my daddy was” – and gentle in musicality, suggesting that some of their efforts, at least, are gimmick-free. But then, there are tracks such as Shit Just Got Real, which features Sen Dog of Cypress Hill, in which they seem to undermine themselves again. The rap in this song seems serious, they sample Summertime in a surprisingly melodic track, and it’s relatively enjoyable as a whole. However, the refrain “Everybody wants to be a gangster / more time to do gangster shit” seems, again, self aware to the point of mocking.
To understand how serious this record is as a piece of music, we have to look at Die Antwoord themselves. On first look, it seems the answer is not very serious at all; they dance around in onesies, constantly appropriate other cultures, pee themselves in videos and publicly shame other artists. Deeper than that, however, the group constantly refer to being true to themselves; they respond to criticism about the videos in which they ‘black up’ with political rhetoric; they call out lazy and awkward interviewers on their social media; their records include spoken word pieces as well as a whole host of genres. I can’t help but feel throughout this record that Die Antwoord are always one step ahead of us. Maybe this is because they really don’t care what we think, or maybe it’s because they already know what we’re thinking. Either way, I’m not sure if how serious they are matters. What matters is just by doing what they’re doing, they demand to be taken seriously.