Anyone who’s followed the career of Minneapolis rapper Dessa knows that the musician has a literary bent. Her 2010 debut solo album, “A Badly Broken Code,” takes its name from a line in a Billy Collins poem, and in her song “Dutch,” she raps, “I talk way too fast, I shoot from a glass/I keep Poe in the glove box, Plath on the dash.”
So it’s no surprise the hip-hop artist, a longtime member of the local rap collective Doomtree, should prove to be such a natural at the written word. Her new memoir/essay collection, “My Own Devices,” is remarkable, one of the best books by a musician to come around in quite a while.
Dessa’s book traces her life from her childhood — she was “a precocious stick figure … gap-toothed, hungry for praise” — to her career as a rapper known for her frequently heartbreaking lyrics. (Her mother describes her songs as “music to bleed out to.”) Much of the memoir deals with her on-again, off-again relationship with a fellow rapper whom she calls X. “Our love wasn’t good for either of us, but we had a hell of a lot of it,” she writes. “We caused each other a lot of pain, mostly on accident and sometimes on purpose.”
The essays in her book range widely by theme. One follows her father’s obsession with glider aircraft; another finds her accompanying her cattle rancher mother to the slaughter of a steer. She’s as wildly inventive an essayist as she is a musician — one essay describes her attempts to get Geico and Lloyd’s of London to insure her heartache. (Regrettably, although perhaps understandably, they declined.)
There’s not an essay in “My Own Devices” that’s less than fascinating, although “Call Off Your Ghost” is a standout. It details Dessa’s attempt to fall out of love with X by way of an experiment involving neurofeedback and an fMRI machine: “It was part science project, part art project, and part earnest attempt to solve a real-world problem,” she explains. It’s a stunningly beautiful reflection on what love and heartbreak can do to us.
Dessa is a rock star of a writer, and she has a unique gift for innovative turns of phrase. She describes a recovering meth addict with memory problems as being like “a house that had not quite burned down — whose walls had vaporized, but the paint was left still standing.” And reflecting on her troubled relationship, she writes, “X and I were only good at the feeling of love, not the behavior. Which is like knowing how to dive, but not how to swim.”
There’s nobody quite like Dessa and no book quite like “My Own Devices.” It’s funny, heartbreaking and brilliantly written, and very possibly the best memoir by a musician since Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.”
Michael Schaub is a regular contributor to NPR and the Los Angeles Times and a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Austin, Texas.
My Own Devices
Publisher: Dutton, 260 pages, $26.
Event: Talking Volumes, 7 p.m. Sept. 20, Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul. Tickets $23-$50. 651-290-1200.