Is caring a good thing? For sure. Caring is one of the most beautiful human qualities. So why does Eden Derso glorify the lack of it on her new album?
“The secret is a minimum, a minimum of caring / I don’t care about him, I don’t care about her,” sings the 24-year-old in Hebrew on the opening track “Minimum of Caring” (“Minimum Ephatiut”) – an instant reminder that Derso is one of the freshest voices on the Israeli hip-hop scene.
What does “Minimum of Caring” actually mean? Is it meant to be understood ironically? Is Derso expressing a blunt, selfish position in order to accentuate her moral failures?
That’s not the point. She really advocates a “minimum of care.” But she is simply imbuing the word “caring” with a different meaning from the conventional one. According to the everyday usage, to be a caring person is to see your environment and other people around you as important. But according to Derso’s definition, a caring person is someone who cares so much about what others think of them that their entire behavior is dictated and shaped by the desire to please. In other words, a conformist with no backbone.
Derso harshly criticizes that mind-set – therefore she preaches that you really shouldn’t care.
Your first instinct may be to dismiss her alternative meaning of “caring” as wrong (with or without discounting her being the daughter of immigrants). But is it really a mistake? Isn’t this a totally legitimate way to see the word “caring,” which simply doesn’t register with someone whose Hebrew is from a different generation?
“So what if they think you’re stupid? Just ignore them. Stop caring so much.” Isn’t this a legitimate understanding of the word? It certainly is in everyday speech – and therefore also in hip-hop, and any other artform that’s based on a living and ever-evolving language.
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What’s particularly intriguing about Derso’s alternative use of the word is that it’s just one side of the equation that constitutes her latest album, “Holy Triangle” (“Meshulash Kadosh”). Because the word “caring” is also very much present in the album in its conventional sense. In fact, there is no contradiction here between minimum care and maximum care.
In the early 1970s, when Chava Alberstein was Derso’s age, she said she aspired to write “caring songs.” That is, songs whose point of reference goes beyond the singer’s private life, without pretending to be “protest songs.” Derso’s songs are just like that.
A great example is “Inside” (“Bifnim”), where she collaborates with fellow Israeli rapper Teddy Neguse. We’re taken inside a club where there’s a “clan of brothers and sisters.” This is, of course, a reference to the Israeli hit from a few years ago. The brothers and sisters here are young people of Ethiopian origin.
“We survived traps no one thought we’d escape from,” Derso sings, and now they’re the ones standing inside the club while others are on the outside. “You didn’t make the grade and you’re dying to get inside,” she declares, endlessly repeating the words “dying to get inside” – slapping the faces of those who made her and her generation stay outside and experience the rejection. The outrage over long years of racism and discrimination is present here, but is conveyed with ironic ease and from a position of strength.
Another good example of a caring song in the conventional sense is “Sugar” (“Sukar”). Derso performs it from the perspective of a young woman looking for a wealthy man, and she has zero problem admitting it. “Take me to Vegas, take me to Saint-Tropez / Quietly I calculate exactly how much you’re worth. … What did you think, it’s all a coincidence?”
A critique of hedonism and Israeli society’s love of money? Absolutely. But that’s not all. In addition to its venomous subversion, the song also has a big heart. The wealthy man understands the girl and sympathizes with her. Maybe there are common links between her and Derso? There’s a real desperation beneath her cynical demeanor. She knows perfectly well that money, like sugar, is not a solution to anything. But she has a hole in her soul, not just in her pocket, and that’s the only way for her to fill it.
Yet it’s not only the intelligent lyrics that create an identification with the song’s protagonist. A major component of the song (and perhaps its main strength) is Derso’s performance. The music world loves labels and Derso – who operates within the growing Israeli hip-hop scene – has quickly been seen as a rapper.
But that’s only partially correct because, in addition to being a rapper, Derso is also a very good R&B singer. These are her musical origins, from way before she started rapping. Her identity within the local hip-hop scene stems not only from the fact that she’s a woman – still a minority, even if a growing one – of Ethiopian origin, but the fact that she’s both a rapper and soul singer.
This unique skill set was already noticeable on her debut album, “Amen,” which was released four years ago. And it shines even more in “Holy Triangle” (a possible reference to the vagina, which specifically stars in one of the album’s songs, “Punani”).
Some of the moments when Derso goes from rapping to singing – for instance, in “First Horse” (“Suss Rishon”) – are truly heartrending. Likewise with the songs where she sings all the way through, such as “Carried Away” (“Nishefet”).
The above-mentioned hit “Sugar” is a prime example of a song that flows freely between rapping and singing, offering a marvelous vocal path that’s a bit of this and a bit of that – rapping lyrics and lyrical rapping. Very few Israeli rappers know how to do this, but Derso excels at it.
The only disappointing aspect of “Holy Triangle” is the non-lyrical rap – that is, the songs without a melodic and soulful element. Four years have passed since “Amen,” and there was an expectation that Derso would really sharpen her craft. But ultimately, “Holy Triangle” doesn’t make that case. The rhythm and flow can and should be much more precise, flexible and musical. As far as the speech-language-rhythm triangle is concerned – which may not be “holy” but is vitally important in hip-hop – Derso still has room to improve.
“Holy Triangle” by Eden Derso is available now on Shigola Records/Helicon Aroma Music.