Eccentric hip-hop trio builds up Ten$ion

Here’s an anecdote to keep the boldness of South African rave-rap group Die Antwoord in perspective: Piqued by the success of a viral video — “Zef Side” — Die Antwoord had released, major label Interscope Records flew the members out to the United States and signed the group to a million-dollar contract.

Zef side · MCs Yo-Landi Vi$$er (left) and Ninja (right), as well as DJ Hi-Tek make up Die Antwoord. The group promotes and satirizes South African Zef culture and hardcore gangster imagery in their songs. - Photo courtesy of Press Here Publicity

Considering hardly anyone in the United States had heard of the trio, it was a big move — and obviously a big deal for smaller artists trying to attract attention.

But Die Antwoord’s newest album, Ten$ion, wasn’t released on Interscope, or any recognizable label, for that matter. That’s because the group quit Interscope and released it on its own. Why?

“[Interscope] kept pushing us to be more generic,” MC Yo-Landi Vi$$er told Spin in January 2012. “We didn’t want to put out any wack sh-t.”

It’s good news Die Antwoord has kept its integrity on Ten$ion. That middle-finger-in-the-air, riotously independent attitude can be found everywhere on the new album, and it’s better off for it.

The sound of Ten$ion, along with Die Antwoord’s image and general swagger, for that matter, is difficult to describe. It’s a wild mashup that features often-indecipherable lyricism, delivered in English, Afrikaans and even a touch of Xhosa. These lyrics are paired with a variety of huge, ambitious beats that recall everything from Dre’s best late- 90s productions to house and dubstep that would make even Deadmau5 smile.

And for better or worse, Ten$ion refuses to commit to one particular style. It’s kind of like the group itself, the musical equivalent of Vi$$er’s awe-inspiring blond mullet and co-MC Ninja’s trusted scowl and DJ Hi-Tek’s gigantic gold chain and pot-leaf bandana.

Does it make sense? Not really. Is it still awesome? Well, of course.

Take the opening track “Never Le Nkemise 1,” for example. It begins beautifully, with a melancholy choir and strings crescendoing in the background, as another ensemble sings the words Never le nkemise.

Cue the madness: Ninja yells I’m indestructible! as the dubstep bass drops like a piano off a 12-story building, groaning and rumbling along with the choir, odd sound effects — the cocking of a gun, for instance — cracking in the background.

A good album, however, doesn’t sustain itself on weirdness alone. It’s easy to pass off Ten$ion as such, what with all the random musical influence and skits — the latter including the bizarre “Uncle Jimmy,” which sounds like a creepy diss at Interscope head Jimmy Iovine. But on repeated listens, Ten$ion proves that, for the most part, it has the musical chops to keep up with its rampant eccentricity.

The album’s second single, “I Fink U Freeky,” is a perfect example. Though Vi$$er’s coquettish, hyper-feminine voice chanting I think you’re freaky / And I like you a lot sounds a little strange at first, the rapid-fire rap flow that follows is convincingly skilled. Ninja flexes his MC muscles on the track, building lyrical momentum in the bridge over an entrancing beat from DJ Hi-Tek that slowly but surely — and cleverly — ramps up the speed of the song.

There’s also an impressive amount of creativity in Ten$ion, often in unexpected ways — on “U Make a Ninja Wanna F-ck,” Ninja slips in, of all things, a Tommy James and the Shondells reference, crooning I think we’re alone now / There doesn’t seem to be anyone around.

And the instrumentation of the tracks is often shockingly good: Check out the frenetic tribal drums of “Fatty Boom Boom,” which charges along with cracking hand claps and Diplo-esque laser tones and samples of machine guns. It’s a balls-out fight song at its finest.

But the eclectic nature of the album can, at times, be a little head-scratching.

“DJ Hi-Tek Rulez,” for example, is hilarious and offensive: It takes the words of boxer Mike Tyson’s infamous rant, which can’t be published here without extensive censoring, at a heckler and places it over a bouncing hip-hop beat. Why include this track? Hard to say. The pop-culture reference might inspire a smile, but the track doesn’t really work as a song; it’s more for giggles than anything else.

Though Ten$ion’s inconsistency from a musical standpoint is fun, it might frustrate some listeners who want more continuity from track to track. Die Antwoord seems to be a group that, in the future, will learn to focus its explosive energy and enthusiasm into more cohesive works.

“The only real thing in life is the unexpected things. Everything else is just an illusion,” Ninja says in a short film about the group.

If that’s the case, Ten$ion stands proudly, flaws and all, as one of the most real albums in recent memory, a line drawn in the sand with Honey Badger-like stubbornness by three incredibly unique artists.