No Compromise, No Bullshit: How Genesis Owusu Sculpted His Incredible Debut Album
"Once you scrape all the glitter off and you really listen to it, you hear what it's really about."
Live music became a distant memory in the holding pattern that was 2020 — tours were scuttled, and festivals that usually define the Australian summer disappeared from the calendar. That stasis reached over into records too, as artists and labels put albums on ice in the hopes of salvaging their live shows.
It’s a limbo that felt especially acute for Genesis Owusu, the Canberra-based emcee who’s spent a good four years steadily building his profile. In the wake of ‘Don’t Need You’, his charismatic Hottest 100 entry, it seemed fans could hardly wait for his debut record — but few felt that delay quite as much as Genesis himself.
“We had it completely finished, mixed and mastered by July, and it felt like [I was] sitting on it for so, so, so long,” he explains over the phone in mid-February, his relief palpable. “A week ago, someone from my team was like ‘The album’s coming out in three weeks.’ I was like, ‘Yo, what!?’ It felt like it’d snuck up on me!”
Time flies when you’re having fun, and Genesis certainly had his share — Kofi’s Black Dog Jams, a six-show stretch at Sydney jazz club Mary’s Underground, gave him a chance to debut new music to adoring, if small, audiences. A bright spot though that was, Genesis paints a far more relatable picture of his half-year wait: “I was just sitting in my room listening to the album, just waiting for the day everyone else could hear it.” In a way, it was a blessing: “I can put it out for people,” he quips. “But it has to pass my six-month standard!”
That Smiling With No Teeth clears that bar is unsurprising — it’s a powerful debut that’s certain to fall amongst the year’s best. “All I’m trying to do is just play the game by my own rules, and just keep any compromise to an absolute minimum,” he says, assured. “If I win, I’ll win on my own terms, and if I lose, I’ll lose on my own terms.”
Equal parts confessional and confrontational, Genesis’ album is a vivid tale of two black dogs — racism and depression — that explores identity, belonging, mental health, and the spectre of success. It’s the work of a defiant outsider firing on all cylinders, invigorated by a singular vision. It’s a story he was destined to tell.
Even in the time before Genesis, Kofi Owusu-Ansah was boundlessly creative.
“When I started making music, I didn’t just start making music,” he says, casting his mind back to his distant Canberran childhood. “I started a bunch of creative mediums at the same time because I wasn’t making music for the goal of being a musician. I was just trying to creatively express myself…Around the same time I started making music, I started dabbling on Photoshop, making and designing clothes. They were all just different tools, and you had to use the right tool to correctly express the right thing.”
Smiling With No Teeth is a product of this philosophy. There’s no single aspect of his aesthetic that feels out-of-step with the greater mission, from his own resplendent threads — high-waisted pants with a double-breasted jacket, all red; a plunging black suit to depict the depressive “black dog” — to those he designed for the goon club, his striking posse of hype men.
Those outfits are central to his wild music videos — such as the fever dream staging in ‘Don’t Need You’ and ‘The Other Black Dog’. “When I’m making music, the idea is this central figure,” explains Genesis. “Let’s say the idea is the movie: the music becomes the soundtrack, and the styling becomes the costumes and the visuals and stuff like that, and it all kind of fits into one cohesive thing.”
Take the bandages that wrap around his face — the sartorial motif of Smiling With No Teeth. The album art finds him bloodied and bandaged, his smile lined with an ostentatious gold grill, fingers fitted with showy rings. It was an idea he just couldn’t shake.
“I had a vague thing before I even really started the album,” says Genesis of that enduring image. “The album’s called Smiling With No Teeth, which means pretending things are okay when they’re not, which is a theme that I’ve been kind of like playing with for a while.”
He points to the cover of his slick 2018 single, ‘WUTD.’ as the seeds of these “very obviously fractured elements… it’s this smile with very gritty, fractured teeth.” That same image bursts forth from the similarly stark ‘Good Times’, a shattered black skull lined with impeccable gold teeth. “All of them are doused in gold,” he says, those luxe fittings “a visual metaphor for superficial solutions to very deep problems.”
Created In Chaos
“As we actually got writing, the theme really refined itself,” Owusu says. “That’s when I thought of the Black Dog characters and stuff like that, maybe a third of the way into creating the album.”
The studio sessions proved an unusual creative catalyst, owing in part to the five-piece band that Genesis assembled. It’s rare enough that an emcee enlists a studio band, let alone one as eclectic as Genesis’ ensemble. “I feel like all human beings have their comfort zones,” he says. “It terrifies me and it bores me to stay in that comfort zone. I feel like where I thrive is where shit is chaotic, where you can never predict where it’s going to go. That’s where I have the most fun.”
“You keep putting the subject in increasingly uncomfortable scenarios and it strips them down to their truest self.”
To that end, the adventurous artist pulled together a five-piece comprising keys from his label head Andrew Klippel, bass from Michael DiFrancesco of Touch Sensitive, guitar from Kirin J. Callinan, and drums from Julian Sudek, whose home studio played host to the Smiling With No Teeth sessions. “[Klippel and I] thought creating a band with all these different people from all these different genres would be the craziest thing to do,” he explains. “[It was] the best way to make this uncomfortable, uncompromising rollercoaster of an experience.”
The sessions proved more than just a break from his comfort zone — in fact, by all reports, Sudek’s studio dealt almost exclusively in discomfort. “The first time I met pretty much all of them, except for my manager, was the first studio session, and that was in Bondi at Julian the drummer’s bedroom-sized studio in sweltering heat.” Genesis pauses for a moment, searching for an analogy: “Have you seen that YouTube show Hot Ones?”
“It’s essentially the same kind of concept,” he continues with a laugh. “You keep putting the subject in increasingly uncomfortable scenarios and it strips them down to their truest self… the extreme discomfort of the situation, it just completely disarmed everyone.”
Smiling With No Teeth is a passionate treatise on racism, depression, fortune, and fame, a collision of styles and sounds refracted through Genesis’ gaze. The lush and languid press up against the frantic and flurried; his arrangements are gold grills in their own right, the silkiest songs holding moments of pain and suffering.
On His Own Terms
“The creation of the album kind of felt like it was coming full circle, and it came back to just being about pure expression, which is the easiest thing for me,” he says, pushing past onetime concerns like “radio play and marketing.” Even singles that sound like instant crowd-pleasers are simply velvet gloves for the iron fists: “All of the topics are bleak — like the whole album, every song on the album is either about depression or racism — but it doesn’t sound like that on the surface. It’s the concept of slathering things in honey.”
‘The Other Black Dog’ moves at pace, an eccentric rock arrangement underscoring its dark depression; ‘Centrefold’ and ‘Waitin On Ya’ slow the tempo even further — they sound enticing, but they’re destructive. “A lot of the songs sound sexy and upbeat and fun, but once you scrape all the glitter off and you really listen to it, you hear what it’s really about,” explains Genesis.
“It’s definitely been like a lifelong experience,” he says. “Growing up in Canberra, it’s a very white place, or just growing up in Western society in general, not a lot of people want to hear this shit. All the black people I knew were just my family that came with me. A lot of the time, when I wanted to talk about these things, it had to be watered down, sugar-coated… slathered in honey, just so people were able to digest it.”
“It’s the concept of slathering things in honey.”
It’s on ‘Gold Chains’ that the method and the message really collide — Callinan’s rogue guitar skates atop the taut harmonies, mirroring the soft-spoken despair of Genesis’ lyrics. That’s not to say he’s pulling punches the whole way through — ‘Black Dogs!’ and ‘Whip Cracker’ are the album’s most powerful combination, all jagged guitars and fiery lyrics. That’s especially true of ‘Whip Cracker’, which opens with almost two minutes of crystal clear declarations. “Why you askin’ why I’m so jaded/Who forgot your thoughts on the races,” he spits. “I been rockin’, rockin’ with my crew/We don’t fuck with neo-nazi spew.”
Smiling With No Teeth flaunts its unconventional approach at every turn, but there are few moments as startling as ‘A Song About Fishing’.
“It started as a joke,” he fondly admits. “That little snippet you can hear at the start — ‘a song about fishing!’ — that’s Kirin in the studio going, ‘sing a song about fishing!’ I just started freestyling it. I freestyled most of those lyrics, and then I tweaked them slightly in the studio, and it turned from this strange little jokey freestyle into this weird parable about perseverance in futile situations.”
A tale of a fisherman who casts his net in spite of low returns feels Sisyphean, but maybe that’s missing the point altogether. As a closing note on a record that revels in self-expression and baulks at compromise, it feels totally appropriate: “It was a real curveball track for everyone, including me, which is why I had to have it on the album,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite tracks.”
“Everyone knows the music industry is notorious for being fucked up.”
If the fisherman’s parable focuses on a fruitless task, Genesis’ own labour of love stands to push him further into the gaze of fame — and he’s uncommonly candid about just how much that prospect “absolutely terrifies” him. “It’s like a big contradiction,” he eagerly explains. “Everyone knows the music industry is notorious for being fucked up, just being a place that is full of creeps and draining vultures, it’s a place where you package up your trauma to be consumed by the masses…yet for some reason, I want to do this as a career.”
“It kind of makes absolutely no sense, but it makes all the sense in the world at the same time,” he says with a laugh. He pulls a lyric off the top of his head — “I sacrificed the gentle life for goals that leave me terrified / but pray this doesn’t lead to my demise” — and puts his drive down to “some reason that I couldn’t even tell you.”
If Smiling With No Teeth has proved anything, it’s what the emcee can do when he goes beyond his comfort zone — something which, ironically, he feels totally comfortable doing. Despite all the flashing lights and industry trappings, stardom might just be Owusu’s next stage.
“I want my place in society to stand out for other little weirdo black kids trying to figure out what they can do in life,” he says, reflecting on his idols like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams.
One thing’s for sure: no matter the next step, Genesis Owusu will be taking it on his own terms.
Genesis Owusu’s debut album, Smiling With No Teeth, will be released on March 5 via OURNESS/Our Anxiety. He’ll be touring the album around the country this May.
Conor Herbert is a freelance music writer who has written for Pilerats, DJBooth and more. Catch him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Bec Parsons