Santigold’s Transcendent ‘Spirituals’

On September 12, 2022
Photo by Frank Ockenfels

Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Santigold’s fourth studio release, Spirituals.

Santi White, better known as Santigold, hasn’t put out a studio album in six years. In 2022, she’s reemerged from the silence with Spirituals, via her own label, Little Jerk Records — and a co-sign from Beyoncé, her name listed on “BREAK MY SOUL (QUEENS REMIX),” sandwiched between Rosetta Tharpe and Bessie Smith alongside other innovative Black women in the music industry. (White told Rolling Stone, “I’m thankful to Beyoncé for using her platform to let people know about these important Black women who have been pioneers, who changed the music industry and impacted so many. A lot of people know Grace Jones and Solange, but they might not know me, or Rosetta Tharpe or Bessie Smith, and now they’re taking the time to look us up. That means a lot.”)

The name drop preceded Santigold’s latest release by a month, and feels like a premonition: With Spirituals, White has recaptured the rawness and personality of her 2008 self-titled debut — the record that guaranteed her spot on the remix’s list in the first place — with the elevated production value and songwriting expertise that 14 years brings.

To call this a “pandemic record” is too easy, but COVID is one of several circumstances that led White to make Spirituals. As she put it in a press release, while isolated and taking care of her three young children, “Recording this album was a way back to myself after being stuck in survival mode. It wasn’t until I made the space to create that I realized I wasn’t only creating music but a lifeline. California was on fire, we were hiding from a plague, the social-justice protests were unfolding. I’d never written lyrics faster in my life.”

White added, “I loved the idea of calling it Spirituals because it touched on the idea of Negro spirituals, which were songs that served the purpose of getting Black people through the un-get-throughable. In the absence of physical freedom, spirituals have traditionally been music whose sound and physical performance allow its participants to feel transcendental freedom in the moment. That’s what this record did for me.”

Spirituals provides numerous coping mechanisms for “the un-get-throughable”: electro-pop ballads like “The Lasty,” brash bravado on early singles “Ain’t Ready” and “High Priestess,” a short dance break in “Shake” and pure catharsis on the album’s standout track, “Nothing.” There are uptempo moments throughout, but everything is saturated in melancholy — opener “My Horror” is a less-than-subtle indication of what listeners are in for. These are songs you can move to, but with a voice in the back of your head all the while, telling you something’s not quite right with the world.

Unlike the sonics of her two latest studio albums (2016’s 99¢ and, to a lesser extent, 2012’s Master of My Make-Believe), which skew toward cheerful, boppy sounds, Santigold cultivates unease across Spirituals with layered vocals, varying degrees of distortion and more than one abrupt transition between tracks. She taps numerous collaborators — SBTRKT, Rostam, Boys Noize, Illangelo, Psymun and Ryan Olson, among others — but keeps herself at the helm, avoiding the pitfalls that can come with amalgamating a few too many voices, à la RENAISSANCE

Well ahead of the genreless curve (as she explained to Stereogum, Santigold was told in the early aughts that her music was too “all over the place”), she puts her chameleon talents to good use, leaning on her punk background as much as her pop acumen. And White is aiming to become an even more multifaceted and interdisciplinary artist; she told Rolling Stone that a book, film and podcast series are on the way, along with skincare and tea to pair with Spirituals.

“When I was making Spirituals, there was so much that I wanted to express,” White said in that interview. “When you put out a new project, sometimes your message gets condensed to ‘Santigold is finding her power,’ but for me, it’s so much deeper than that. I’m only getting started.”

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Theda Berry

Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the Assistant Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.

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