Thu 12 Nov, Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
American poet, rapper and all-round renaissance woman Dessa was a fine choice to take part in this collaborative experiment with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – fusing her lyricism, equal parts street-grit and soul with the sweeping cinematic sounds of a full orchestra.
Combining hip hop and classical music has been done before, of course, with varying success. Nas recently released a live version of Illmatic with an orchestra in tow – and whilst that album is such a stone-cold classic you couldn’t break it with a sledgehammer, the orchestral parts felt more like an add-on rather than a fully integrated part of the music. Not so here, Dessa’s songs – translated to orchestral charts by Andy Thompson – are fully-fledged in this form, with real widescreen bombast added to them. Songs like openers Skeleton Key and Jumprope set the scene, providing both added intimacy and bigger dynamic range.
There were a few flaws in the production – in the earlier parts of the show, it sounded as if Dessa was being overpowered by the orchestra, but listening closer it seemed as if even her two backing singers were a smidgen higher in the mix. In the second half, this was rectified and Dessa became a lot more prominent – she seemed to become more confident performance-wise too, more aggressive on the mic, sweeter in the harmonies she shared with Aby Walker and Matthew Santos. But the highlights more than outnumbered the lowlights – a new song, Mash Up (inspired by nursery rhyme Adeiladu Ty Bach) was more heartfelt than its childlike origins might precipitate, though its themes of home and memories of youth certainly strike well with a Welsh audience.
Another performance – Good Grief (arranged in collaboration with a school in Pengam, with Owain Felstead and Jacob Kinsey, two talented young singers from the school) – was a turning point in the gig, when it switched up to a higher gear. The final trio of songs – Dixon’s Girl, 5 out of 6 and Fire Drills – were most powerful, showcasing Dessa’s heartfelt infusion of both her hip-hop background, coming out of the POS-led Doomtree collective in Minneapolis, and her more recent soulful inflections, drawing on the rich history of R’n’B music across the US. Growing stronger onstage with each step, it feels almost too soon when she leaves the stage – but then again, it’s always good to leave the crowd wanting more.
words FEDOR TOT