Genesis Owusu was something of an enigma when I found him through his Smiling with No Teeth album in 2021. It was new, different, and defiant, practically genreless in its totality. The overall themes were wholly relatable – faking it through the pain, sometimes even letting the mask slip, but acknowledging that the pain must be fixed. It was a lot in a little, and yet it worked so well. I was interested.
STRUGGLER is nearly like a whole different artist made this album, and maybe there’s some truth to that. In a post corresponding to the album’s launch in Australia where Owusu is from, he opens up about being being very depressed this year and while it doesn’t seem necessarily planned, STRUGGLER takes on an air of perseverance. Lots of references and comparisons to roaches (similar to the black dog references in Smiling with No Teeth) and how we all feel like roaches running from a god or godlike figure’s wrath. We’re just tryna live, you know? Owusu gets it!
And in his words, ‘yes, it is a Berserk reference‘
STRUGGLER really revels in pity at times, though not annoyingly so. It definitely doesn’t sap the fun out of the music either. Lead single “Leaving the Light” is one of Owusu’s best songs yet, vibrant, warm, and catchy with earworm lyrics that paint a picture of survival and defiance.
‘The pest is always on the move, I ain’t vanish
Crush me with your holy hell, I feel no damage
I can never stop my path, despite the panic
The planet might be burning down, fuck it, I’ll manage
Green hills, I can see them smoking
Big smile as the flames approaching
I’m a beast, I can feel them poaching
Stamp me down, but a roach keeps roaching’
The whole track is built on the foundation of a plucky synth melody, blood-pumping drums, and strong vocals delivered in a rhythmic, rap-like cadence. It’s such a strong song to lead the album off with and one of its high points for sure.
Genesis Owusu sticks to his guns of genre agnosticism by incorporating anything from hip-hop and pop to indie rock and even some post-punk tastes. “The Roach” is more toned-down and somber, basking in a bass lick that’s as catchy as it is moody. It feels like the world after it’s been burned down in “Leaving the Light” – fitting as this song comes right after. This is where you get a bit more context for the literal roach character that Owusu portrays and how that represents an outcast’s burden of being othered and not belonging (‘Only fit for the fiends/Said the popes and the queens/I’m the king of the unseen‘) and the pursuit of a truth that may not come (‘I’m tryna break free with a penciled stanza/So are we human or are we dancer?/I’mma waste a life tryna chase an answer‘). The vocal harmonies in the hook are delectable as well. Another stellar track.
“The Old Man” is a similar song, this time more directly conflicting with God with other allusions to biblical figures (‘Everyday I wake up, boy, I’m battling Goliath‘). And despite some signs of optimism, Owusu really conveys this sense of defeat where he can’t even accept love and care from his pals (‘The hate I can handle, but the love always suspect to me/You see the black and white, I see the lines between, the world’s a checkered tee/My ni**as wanna check on me, I leave ’em on seen‘). It’s one of the darkest moments on the album and yet it’s still replete with energy, rock instrumentation building and bubbling beneath Owusu’s more forlorn delivery (the chorus is especially great) until it peaks at the climax of the song and fizzles out.
There’s more soulful moments here like on “See Ya There” which has stripped-back instrumentation and cleanly, almost falsetto singing from Owusu to create this ethereal feel unlike anything else on STRUGGLER. “Tied Up!” is a dancy, groovy number with a funk backbone and warbling guitars. Owusu’s vocals really highlight his Australian accent here and the chorus is about as infectious as possible without actually making you sick. There’s even some jazzy and R&B affectations on “That’s Life (A Swamp)” and “Stuck to the Fan”.
By the time STRUGGLER reaches its conclusion, there isn’t a very clear-cut one. Perhaps that’s the point – the album is very concerned with existence, battling death trying to sandwich us as if heaven and hell were big pieces of roach-shaped ciabatta bread, and finding the motivation to keep running with our little bug legs. I mean, shit, we already know how the story ends. We don’t live forever, not even roaches, and while life’s meaning may allude us, maybe the lesson is it’s all about the journey and seeing what drives your will to live. Do it in a way that keeps people guessing. Be unpredictable, ungovernable, and unkillable for as long as you can. And leave more than just a stain on the world once it’s over.
Been saying this for a while now, but I think Genesis Owusu is one of the more interesting voices in music right now. STRUGGLER only exacerbated that feeling more for me. Here’s another album that’s tripped up his style even more, broadcasting immense talent and a good ear for music that supports that. In the streaming age, it’s easy to dismiss artists to move onto the next thing, but this is someone with staying power, crafting catchy songs that run the gamut of popular music, and it all somehow fits him. There’s no box to fit him in. Even if you do, he’s a roach – he’ll simply wriggle out and get moving onto the next endeavor. Here’s hoping Owusu is pestering us for quite a while.
Artist photo by Bec Parsons