It's hard to imagine how one would feel before releasing a sophomore album after the mega-success of their first. Perhaps apprehensive, or maybe riddled with nervous excitement—most likely somewhere in between. But speaking to Genesis Owusu a week out from the release of his second LP STRUGGLER, he's tranquil and quietly confident.
His confidence isn’t a by-product of his last album’s success, in fact, his self-assuredness preceded the success of his first album. For Owusu, making music has always been a personal exercise of introspection—critics be damned.
His debut album, Smiling With No Teeth, was met with critical acclaim and made Australian music history as the first hip-hop album to win the ARIA award for Album of the Year (in addition to Best Hip Hop Release, Best Independent Release and Best Cover Art, no less).
STRUGGLER is finally upon us, and it’s come with a conjoined persona—the Roach. In typical Owusu fashion, the album blends a range of genres—predominantly rap, rock and electronic. The 11 tracks traverse rocky existentialist terrain, with the album having been inspired by two seminal literary works: Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" and Franz Kafka’s "Metamorphosis."
Speaking of how the album came about, Owusu says it all started with a story he wrote. “I wrote a tale about a [cockroach] that runs and runs, trying not to get stepped on by God. It was indicative, I felt, of the times we’re living in. The album came about because I [thought], how would this story sound?”
Compared to his last album, which he described as “Punk and Jazz in ethos,” STRUGGLER, he says, is literary in ethos. While tackling existentialist thought on an album may seem daunting to some, making complex concepts accessible to audiences is part Owusu’s genius. STRUGGLER is Owusu’s tale about the stubbornness of the human spirit, and each person’s innate ability to remain intrepid through life’s chaos, despair and absurdity.
Speaking to Complex AU, Genesis Owusu talks the making of STRUGGLER, leaning into absurdism, and celebrating resilience. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
Your debut LP, Smiling With No Teeth, was critically acclaimed. How are you feeling ahead of your second album release? Any pressure?
I definitely think I felt pressure when I was making it, but most of what I felt was an internal sense of pressure for me to meet my own standards—and find things to say that were authentic and sincere. But now that it's done, I don't necessarily feel pressure. I'm more just interested in seeing how people receive it.
What are you most excited for people to hear?
I’m most excited for people to hear the album as a whole body of work, just because every time I create something like this, I intend for it to be consumed as a whole. The singles have been little teasers to get people excited, but I'm excited for people to hear [the album] as a whole and see how they receive it: whether they love it or hate it, if they think I'm saying something, if they think there's a story and what that story is.
Smiling With No Teeth was famously recorded in six consecutive days. What was the making of STRUGGLER like?
The making of this album wasn’t as linear—I had to find the time to create it in the middle of touring. I was trying to find something to say that was authentically me, which is a process in and of itself. I spent a lot of the time between albums figuring out what I wanted to say. I ended up finding it through books and plays and different philosophies.
"Making music is just the exercise of me trying to understand myself."
I want to touch on some of the existentialist readings that inspired the album—STRUGGLER is laden with existentialist themes. I know you were influenced by the writings of the absurdist philosopher Albert Camus, as well as Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” and Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” What was your relationship like with existentialism prior to making the album?
I had extremely surface level [knowledge] about existentialist thought and texts. Making the album was the first time I really delved into those philosophies and texts, and it made a profound difference in the way I view life. I think especially with absurdism, it’s such a typical post-depression philosophy. It’s like “Oh, there's no meaning. Well, who gives a fuck!”
Reading about it made a big difference in my own life, but I also think [absurdism] is profoundly and hilariously on point with how society is functioning today. Like when I first read “Metamorphosis,” where [Gregor] turns into a giant bug and the first thing he thinks is, “Oh shit, how am I gonna get to work today? What's my boss gonna think?” I just thought that was so on point. Even though the book was written decades ago, it still feels relevant. In recent times we've lived through bushfires and pandemics and economic downfall—but we’ve still just gotten up, put our ties on, and gone to work [laughs]. So yeah, I think that if there’s a time for absurdism to really reignite, it's now.
On that note, I wanted to check in with how you’re feeling existentially these days? Are you feeling a bit absurdist, a bit nihilistic, or a bit existential neutral? Or perhaps a combination of all?
I feel like I'm feeling pretty absurdist. I’m very much like, “It is what it is,” whether things are up or down. A rollercoaster needs the ups and the downs to make the whole experience exciting. So that’s kind of how I’m living life in this moment.
But I think [the album] really showcases a lot of different phases—like it goes through nihilism, it goes through existentialism, and then we end up at absurdism [laughs].
One thing you do really well is take what are often inaccessible, complex topics and make them accessible. On Smiling With No Teeth, you did that with racism and depression. With this album, you’ve done the same with existentialism. Is this something you do intentionally—make difficult things understandable—or is it just a by-product of you creating your art?
Honestly—with music being a form of therapy for me—I think that my process is more about me trying to make those concepts accessible to myself. Like I feel things, and then I write the music in a way that’s just me trying to understand myself. For some reason, when I write [feelings] down or put them in music they make more sense to me, even though I’m the one feeling them. So I think that's where that comes from. Making music is just the exercise of me trying to understand myself.
What’s the most important message in the album?
I think it's viewing one’s journey [through life] holistically. Even through all of life’s despair, confusion, and absurdity—we always keep moving—and I think the album has that undertone. [The album] really is, at the end of the day, a celebration of stubbornness and the human will to survive and persevere through any and all obstacles. I think that's something we should celebrate more in ourselves.
People don't really see the strength in themselves. It can be tough getting up every day when you live in a world like this, or you're feeling the weightiness of depression, or when those financial statements ain't looking good, you know? We don’t give ourselves enough credit for the innate strength we have to just persevere and get to the next day.
It's very much cockroach vibes—indestructible.