Backxwash’s Jagged, Metallic Rap Expressionism
“Oh, no! No! Please, God, help me!” That’s Ozzy Osbourne howling on Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath,” from the album Black Sabbath. “Black Sabbath” is the first song from Sabbath’s 1970 debut album, which means it’s a big-bang moment for the entire existence of metal. On that song, Osbourne screams about being terrorized by a “big black shape with eyes of fire,” while Tony Iommi grinds out a majestically evil riff. Osbourne doesn’t sound cool. He doesn’t sound like he thinks it’s awesome that this vision of Satan has appeared before him. He sounds terrified.
That strained howl is how Backxwash, the Montreal rapper and producer, begins her album God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It, the album that she released in July. Backxwash isn’t the first rapper to use a “Black Sabbath” sample. Ice-T chopped up that riff on “Midnight” in 1991, and Backxwash’s fellow DIY rap enigma Ka used the bassline on “You Know It’s About” in 2013. For both Ice-T and Ka, though, the “Black Sabbath” sample was all about the sinister creep of that groove. For Backxwash, it’s the fear and the anguish in Ozzy’s voice.
Backxwash uses samples for groove, too. On God Has Nothing To Do With This, she also uses the elemental skies-falling drum intro from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” — a classic rap breakbeat and another sound that Ice-T uses on “Midnight.” But for the most part, the samples on Backxwash’s album are heavy in ways just as emotional as they are musical. She uses tribal chants from Zambia, the county where she was born and where she lived until she was a teenager. There’s preaching from the church where she had to spend long hours as a kid. There’s the haunted, disquieting “In Heaven,” the radiator-lady song from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The album ends with the preacher TD Jakes talking about the idea of forgiveness.
Talking to NPR last week, Backxwash said, “I see samples more than just sounds. They represent a slice of time. From my perspective, I wouldn’t use something unless I was connected to it in some way.” So even when we recognize something like that Sabbath sample, Backxwash isn’t playing around in our memory. She’s playing around in her own.
Backxwash spent 17 years in Zambia, growing up in an oppressively conservative family, before she moved to Canada. She didn’t come out as a trans woman until she was in her mid-twenties, which was around the time she started making music as Backxwash. The whole Backxwash project started in 2018, and it’s already yielded two albums and three EPs, with another LP reportedly coming early next year. In the months since God Has Nothing To Do With This, Backxwash has become a cult favorite in certain circles of the internet, especially the ones where people might recognize the Christian black metal samples on her excellent Stigmata EP. On Monday night, Backxwash won the Polaris Music Prize, the big Canadian award that has previously gone to Arcade Fire and Feist and Fucked Up and Kaytranada and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Her win is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone win an award by screaming “you gotta be shitting me!” at a webcam.
That award is well-earned. God Has Nothing To Do With This is a cold, powerful album about transgressing someone else’s belief system and about the mental weight of that. On the LP, Backxwash raps about transitioning and about losing the acceptance of her family: “It’s been years since I talked to granny/ I think it’s pretty sick that I lost the family.” On the album’s closing track, the genuinely lovely “Redemption,” Backxwash says things publicly that a lot of people have trouble even whispering to their families: “Feel like you lost a son, but you gained a daughter/ You think it’s plain and awkward, you think I’m pain and sorrow/ You think I broke your heart, I think it’s for survival.” It’s inspiring.
God Has Nothing To Do With This is not a regular rap record, but it does the kinds of things that rap music does. A big part of why I love rap music, on an abstract level, is the way that the music turns the language and flotsam of an oppressive culture against itself. In a lot of the best rap music, people born with no power assert strength and dominance. Backxwash does that. She talks about depression and self-doubt and “torment and mourning,” but she also sounds strong and unbent. She has fun with it, too: “Only thing that I need is some vodka and a little therapy/ Some weed, maybe Serge Ibaka, and two seraphim.”
As strong as God Has Nothing To Do With It is, I actually prefer the immersive clangor of Stigmata, the EP that Backxwash released a month later. Backxwash raps in a wind-blown bellow, and she uses metal samples and industrial textures. I’ve seen her compared to abrasive rap experimentalists like Death Grips and JPEGMAFIA and Ghostemane, and I’ve seen Backxwash express admiration for all of them. But my favorite Backxwash moments remind me more of peak-period Tricky, another dark conjurer and permanent outsider who twisted rap’s building blocks up into his own personal shapes. Backxwash doesn’t sound anything like Tricky, but I get that same wandering-spirit approach to rap methodology from her.
For reasons that I assume are sample-related, most of Backxwash’s music isn’t on the big streaming services. Instead, at least right now, an album like God Has Nothing To Do With This is exclusive to Bandcamp, where it’s a free download. Backxwash is a singular voice, but if you spend enough time clicking around Bandcamp, you’ll find more singular voices. Bandcamp has become a kind of haven for free-floating rap tinkerers like Pink Siifu and Zeroh. These artists don’t really have anything in common, but their work interlocks in some intriguing ways. If SoundCloud rap could become a genre a few years ago, why couldn’t Bandcamp rap become one now?
1. Lil Yachty & Sada Baby – “Not Regular”
Lil Yachty has always been endearing — that’s how he wound up in a Sprite commercial with LeBron James — but his persistent devotion to underground Michigan rap is easily the most endearing thing about him. If you’re on a song with Sada Baby and rapping about giving people wedgies, you’re living the dream.
2. RU$H, Tha God Fahim, & Jay Nice – “Kalamata Olives (Cest La Vie)” (Feat. Quelle Chris)
I hear some music like this, and I just feel like my life is a whole lot more luxurious than it actually is.
3. Pap Chanel & Future – “Gucci Bucket Hat” (Feat. Herion Young)
Future hasn’t sounded this cool in a minute. The man can still repeat a three-word phrase a bunch of times and make it sound like hypnosis. When you’re on a song like this with Future, it can be a challenge to assert any real personality. Pap Chanel is up to it. She comes extremely tough on this. Herion Young, meanwhile, has some effortless tossed-off charisma that I really like.
4. Peso Peso – “Trappin & Killin”
Peso Peso, from Houston, has such a great rasp in his voice. Even when he’s doing the same skipping cadences that everyone else does, he doesn’t sound anything like anyone else. He brings pathos even when he’s talking about wearing Off White or whatever.
5. Yella Beezy – “Solid” (Feat. 42 Dugg)
I tend to think of Yella Beezy as a bluesy melodic groaner, but he just skips over this thing. Detroit rappers are out here bringing the best out of everyone.