Dua Saleh Creates a Queer Enigmatic Dreamland on ‘Rosetta’

Minneapolis-based artist Dua Saleh is a gender non-binary Sudanese-American Muslim. Given the tumult associated with that city in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the resulting zeitgeist, Saleh seems a beacon of hope to the outsider, an antithesis to the status quo. If intersectionality could be measured musically, it might likely sound like Saleh’s work. Saleh’s parents fled to America during the second Sudanese civil war. Growing up in a strict Muslim househould, and frequently moving, Saleh became extremely introverted, finding an outlet in art. Eventually, gender nonconformity became an integral part of Saleh’s identity. They surrounded themself with an almost exclusively queer and trans group of friends, and sought out queer artists for inspiration, among them Le1f and Kilo Kish, whose influence can still be heard in Saleh’s music. A more prominent influence, however, is slam poetry, which served as the basis for Saleh’s artistic development. Music, on the whole, was a more recent undertaking which followed naturally from the artistry that Saleh had cultivated through poetry. They quickly won fans among the likes of Moses Sumney and Purity Ring, as well as fellow Minneapolis producer Psymun. Saleh released their first EP, “Nūr,” last year, piquing intrigue and winning critical acclaim. The followup, “Rosetta,” is named after Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the guitar hero and gospel singer who anticipated rock ‘n’ roll with her bold, forward stylings. Having discovered that Tharpe too was queer, Saleh has honored her to draw attention to the erasure of queer artists. And in the tradition of Sister Tharpe, Saleh breaks exciting new sonic ground

On opener “Cat Scratch,” a trembling, spindly guitar line plays for a few bars, and Saleh dives in with the beat, in a double alien onslaught. Saleh’s tone is at once scathing and sweet, as they sing-rap with an idiosyncratic drawl, over a rattle that sounds like rakes and velcro straps. The resulting sound indeed conjures a “cat scratch,” scraping, and venomous. Saleh rides the beat, in sync with its fluctuations, their percussive splatters falling subject to sustained slurs, like a being possessed. Saleh presents themself as the ostensible victim of the cat scratch, beginning, “Kitty left her gripper marks on me,” then goes on to describe the culprit, radically flipping the script regarding what is conventionally attractive — “Nails undone / Weigh a ton / Hold a gun.” The bit that hooks you most of all is when Saleh comments, “Rocking them stilettos,” as if entranced by this feline entity. The excessive repetition of this simple observation communicates the degree to which Saleh is spellbound, which makes the song relatable to anyone who has ever fallen subject to another’s charms, despite the otherwise absurdity.

Lead single “Umbrellar” gives Saleh’s aesthetic the full ‘80s treatment. Everything is shrouded in reverb, and Saleh affects their enunciation with a distinctly ‘80s dramatic flourish. It’s a punchy tune with an instantaneous chorus, but Saleh keeps it refreshingly off-kilter, singing ever so slightly behind the beat, and rounding off words with excessive flair. It’s the sound of someone on a different wavelength. In Saleh’s own words, the song is “basically about falling in love with a gay alien witch.” Saleh paints a vivid picture of an otherworldly being, with imagery of diamonds and tunnels, then informs us that, “her father owns a factory making corn.” Saleh eventually skips forward to after an encounter, recalling “When she brought her wand out / I knew I had lost our deal.” The climactic ring of lines like these, combined with the sheer strangeness of this all, makes Saleh difficult to ignore. 

At points of “Umbrellar,” Saleh gets gratuitously explicit, with lines like “I really gutted out her womb.” These tendencies really come out, however, on “Smut,” in which they rap, “Bitch I’m a smut / Fuck on my girl in the truck.” Saleh intersperses this with more poetic fragments like, “Licking the lozenge of lust / Cradle the devil and cusp,” and arbitrary questions about trust, before resuming essentially a sex song. They come through in Auto-tune, over gritty synth bass, a skittering beat, and spy movie guitars. Saleh’s voice is progressively treated, mutating into nasal chipmunk registers, then sinking down to bassy bottoms and back to center. As if this weren’t wild enough, the language switches suddenly from English to Arabic, throwing in rolls of the tongue and intonations specific to the language. A thundering snare hammers forward, and Saleh settles into a slanted groove of Eastern mystique, as vocals continue to morph every which way.

“Windhymn” is a lo-fi experiment with Saleh singing up close over a faint audio track. They hum along with themselves, and don’t pronounce their words as much as hint at them, as if the lyrics were an afterthought to the musical force that overcomes them. The song may have indeed been improvised, considering both the random content and ramshackle recording. The two go hand in hand, however, as Saleh makes an incantation to Spring, a request for wind. The theme of witchcraft from “Umbrellar” resurfaces here, as Saleh gives way to bouts of passion, becoming suddenly cloaked in reverb midway. The singing vaguely echoes Billie Holiday with its tortured, jazzy phrasing, and fades out in a hypnotic murmur over splattering handclaps. 

Saleh comes back front and center on “Hellbound,” sounding as if still entranced, over a skeletal, vaguely jazzy trip-hop beat. Saleh presents themselves as a devilish force who steals people’s lovers, and switches the pronouns in different iterations of particular lines. Midway, Saleh exclaim’s, “Hellbound, bitch, you on my dick,” and a brooding, distorted synth bass enters the mix. In a flash, all hell breaks loose, and the title is beyond justified. Saleh seethes and taunts, as vocals get pitched down and distortion envelops everything. 

“Bankrupt” places Saleh again rather jarringly loud in the mix, now over a backdrop of childlike holiday chimes that occasionally morph and shift pitch. The disparity in fidelity between the voice and the backdrop enhances the otherworldly nature of the music, with Saleh sounding as if suspended in a dream world, distant from the temporal world. There are slam poetry style non sequiturs that could easily come across as both abstract art and uttered nonsense. The consistent line that keeps resurfacing is “Nothing in between,” leaving on an uncompromising note.

Dua Saleh’s music doesn’t sound quite like anything else. Saleh’s tone, timbre, timing, and inflections are all peculiar to them alone. They lock and load, lag behind the beat, coo, stab, slur, and put on a hell of a show. Their lyrics dart wildly between abstract poetry and primal vulgarity with an arbitrariness that flashes bits of genius, and makes an impact. A gothic streak runs through the music, and Psymun’s dark and edgy production is a natural fit for Saleh’s quirk. Unabashedly queer and thoroughly enigmatic, “Rosetta” offers a prospective alternative sound. 

Rosetta” is available June 12 on Apple Music.