On Kiid, her first full LP, Mal Devisa’s voice is raw, collected, and honest, scaling heights that you may have forgotten were there.
“In My Neighborhood”—
Deja Carr’s voice is a force of gravity, an instrument of rare range and seemingly limitless capacity for empathy. When she howls, her vocals clip into the red, and her rapping jolts you straight awake. On Kiid, her first full LP, her voice is raw, collected, and honest, scaling heights that you may have forgotten were there.
Mal Devisa is Carr’s solo moniker. She grew up in the Bronx and, at five, moved to the college town of Amherst, Mass. Carr seems to have absorbed the intellectual rigor that is the oxygen of such a place—the societal critique in her songs and interviews is razor sharp—as well as its heart. (“I’m definitely a small town person,” Carr once said. “When I go to the city I’m like, ‘Why is no one returning my smile?’ It’s kind of sad.”) At 12, Carr attended a Girls Rock Camp lead by a former member of the ’70s outfit Fanny and started a funk band called Who’da Funk It; the group lasted until Carr was 17, and a year later, in 2014, she released her first music as Mal Devisa. Her debut EP included a cover of Feist’s “Honey Honey” as well as a remarkably classic-sounding blues ballad called “Daisy,” which appears here.
Kiid pairs that enormous, smoldering voice with spare instrumentation—Carr is mostly accompanied by her rumbling bass, with occasional piano, drums, and beats. The minimalism of the music is a foil, highlighting how thundering Carr’s alto can be. Rhythm is her primary instrument, and it follows that her grandfather was the New York City-bred jazz drummer Bruno Carr, who recorded with Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Warmed with tape hiss, Kiid was released with no label after a successful Kickstarter campaign, and it accordingly ascribes to its own genre-skewing logic. Brilliantly sequenced, it contains two sets of five mostly acoustic tracks, capped by a booming rap song at the end of each side—declarations of unwavering autonomy, bars that leave foes present and historical in the dust. Carr’s commanding songs have the wide-open, recursive feeling of jazz and blues. The bass guitar, plucked and strummed, makes Kiid feel tactile and alive.
No matter the style, the spirits of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday lurk in all of these songs. Carr’s borderless voice has a similar way of luxuriating in every note. You would not be mistaken for hearing shades of Merrill Garbus, too. (Carr has a tUnE-yArDs tattoo.) The mesmerizing “Sea of Limbs” is performed so starkly that you can feel the dimensions of the room it was recorded in—the darkness and the tables and chairs and caverns of space. “If you swim in a sea of limbs/Don’t be surprised when someone tries to grab you,” Carr sings, wringing the stoic resolve out of such images as “Poseidon and his golden rage” and “skin like a tidal wave.” On the tender “Everybody Knows,” Carr’s melismatic singing twists syllables into sublime shapes. “Everybody knows that my heart grows deeper than the water,” she sings. “I will make a road map out of my heart.”
There are more aggressive moments on Kiid, too. The clattering, densely layered “In My Neighborhood” is grounded by sinister industrial electronics. It sounds like an anti-gentrification anthem: “Girl don’t shut your eye/This is called the world,” she snarls, “Don’t look hip enough?/That’s cause I’m not hip enough/In my neighborhood.” Kiid ends with “Dominatrix,” one of the album’s two exhilarating rap songs, erupting all of its frustration into a restless flow. It is a jarring final purge, a menacing wrecking ball of feminist defiance: “I’m a dominatrix when the bass kicks/I’m eating up the spirits like the shackles on the slave ships,” she raps. “I’m better off being a queen in size 16 jeans… or the only black woman slaying science on TV.” These moments, and particularly the boiling-point of “Dominatrix,” underscore the more quiet rage that is simmering all along.
The starry penultimate track “Forget that I.” is just Carr and piano, as if there is a sole light beaming down on her: “I am more than what you think of me/I fight fires in the dark/In the beauty of it all/I forget that I have lied/I am holding onto my own life.” Songs so precisely about survival are rarely so full of grace.
In interviews, Carr has expressed the inspiration she’s drawn from the Black Lives Matter movement; she once evoked the lyrics to “Forget that I.” when discussing the colorblindness that permeates America, the forces that make it easier to “reject people that don't look like us.” “I know for a fact that everyone is more than what I see when I look at them,” Carr said, “and maybe more than what they see when they look at themselves.” These realities naturally charge all of Kiid. Even its abstract lyrics feel politicized: On “Live Again,” when Carr repeats its titular refrain—“Why do we live again?”—the answer seems to ring out in the song's echoes.
Kiid’s opener “Fire” distills her power into its most heartbreakingly simple expression. She sings of “fire in the brains” of all those trying to make sense of our painfully nonsensical world. “Does it kill you to know that we’re all dying?” Carr sings. “It kills me to know.” Musically, it sounds classic—wise, like an old soul—and yet “Fire” is the sound of this very moment. Her lyrics ponder grave injustices, process immense breaches, and yet they are searingly lucid. Perhaps this is what makes Mal Devisa so profound: For 30 minutes, there is nothing between you and her voice.