Genesis Owusu has returned with a sense of urgency and darkness on his second album Struggler. Where his last release felt like a culmination of years’ slowly chipping away at what eventually would become his groundbreaking debut Smiling With No Teeth, here on Struggler it feels like a body of work from an artist who might be in an in-between phase, coming to terms with his newfound success.
Following a fictitious character throughout its run, there is the natural bounce you’ve come to expect from Owusu, as he now leans more into a traditional rock sound. Where his first album touched evenly on rock, rap, hip hop and soul, Struggler moves more firmly into a general rock space, all the while stretching the vibe to encompass sounds not dissimilar to Prince and even early Bloc Party. Opening the album is lead single “Leaving the Light”, a racing and panicked three minutes of brilliance that mirrors the more up-tempo material on Smiling With No Teeth, without feeling like it is just a leftover that missed the initial cut. “Leaving the Light” is significant as an opener and sets the tone for what could come on the rest of Struggler.
“The Roach” has an industrial vibe that feels like it could have been a Trent Reznor side project, as the album’s main character, the Roach, makes their first appearance. Owusu notes the Roach is symbolic of everyone who has spent the past three years trying to tread water and not be engulfed or crushed by the events of the world since early 2020. The addition of a sneaky reference to The Killers is a nice addition to an otherwise well-rounded song. With a similar tone and excitement, “The Old Man” follows “The Roach” as the album’s first quarter moves into its middle stages.
At eleven tracks in length, there’s only a couple of songs that stay within the soul realm (“See Ya There” and closer “Stuck to the Fan”). These two tracks help break up Struggler, which at times does get a little rock heavy and strays from what Owusu first became known for. This by no means is a bad thing; if anything it shows the growth and confidence of an act willingly trying to push their own boundaries in the search of professional and personal growth.
With definite nods to Kele Okereke and Bloc Party on Struggler (“Freak Boy” could be an Okereke solo song, while “Stay Blessed” feels like it should have been on Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm. “Stay Blessed” will be a ripper live song, mark my words), Genesis Owusu has tested the waters of what he knows his fans will like, while pushing the boundaries on what he would like to create. With themes of rumination, defiance, anger and mental struggle, Owusu has cultivated a release that is confident in itself, while coming to terms with external forces and changes it may not have that much control of.
The evident peak of Struggler is “Tied Up”, a definite nod to Prince, with its swirling guitars and a bounce that would make the best basketballers envious. Followed by “That’s Life (A Swamp)”, a grooving and completely fun five minutes that I look forward to hearing in jazz and soul bars, the song has two distinct parts that make it feel like you’re getting a lot more bang for your buck than you’d expect from a standard mid-album track. The one-two punch of “Tied Up” and “That’s Life (A Swamp)” is the definite peak of Struggler.
After hitting the highest of highs on his first album, it was always going to be tough to reach those same highs here on Struggler. And while the album probably does fall short in some areas, Struggler is incredibly well-weighted and a joy to listen to. The album is a natural and positive progression from an act who’s been doing cool stuff for years now. I’ve been tempted to use a ‘struggle’ pun in the review. So I’ll leave you with this one – it won’t be a struggle to listen to Struggler. You’ll love it.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Struggler is out Friday 18 August.
Genesis Owusu heads out on a national tour in December. For more information, head here.