The concept album is a context fraught with massive responsibility and risk for musicians. Pick the wrong source or story and listeners won’t be interested; compose songs that can’t carry the theme and listeners won’t buy in. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is a weighty work that might successfully be used for a concept album in the right creative hands. That upstart indie rapper Genesis Owusu believed his hands were up to the task seems a stretch at first blush, but his sophomore album STRUGGLER indicates he might have just pulled it off.
The young Australian-by-way-of-Ghana uses the Kafka story to imagine himself as a cockroach trying to avoid being stepped on by God. Throughout STRUGGLER, Owusu incorporates elements from other stories steeped in the Bible (David and Goliath) and existentialism (Waiting for Godot). He turns “That’s Life (A Swamp)” into a two-part Frank Ocean suite, a metaphorical hyperpop kill me that backs into a metaphorical neo-soul fuck you. “Stay Blessed,” meanwhile, is ultimately about someone’s legacy whether in memory and deed or through friends, family, and followers—remember, if you see one roach, there’s probably many others hiding out.
STRUGGLER, the LP and the singular word, ends up emblematic of a laundry list of struggles: Jesus vs. heathens, insular white society vs. the Other, gang conflicts, toxic lovers. It’s a relentlessly deceptive and sonically curious album, as Owusu’s 11 compositions here extend and transcend hip-hop traditions. He and his studio crew feel at ease dropping tuneful bars in front of synth-funk and martial post-punk stomps. “What Comes Will Come” sneaks in some junglist beats, while “See Ya There” wraps his anger at God in the warm blanket of quiet-storm R&B.
Both reviled and admired as one of urban society’s great survivors, the cockroach becomes an avatar for Genesis Owusu and his (and our) daily grind on STRUGGLER. It’s an engaging and important reminder: There are times you may not want to get out of bed, but it’s a victory in itself to pick up one foot and put it in front of the other, and then the other, then the other, then the other, then…
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.