Much has happened since Santigold last appeared in Los Angeles in 2009, when she shared a bill with Raphael Saadiq and Femi Kuti at the Hollywood Bowl and stole the show. Songs from her hook-laden debut album, “Santogold” (she changed her name slightly), seemed to be popping up everywhere, including commercials for Ford and Budweiser, while associations with the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Bjork and Azealia Banks lent her cred with the old and new world orders, and her dynamic set on the main stage at Coachella in April suggested that she had fully arrived. Oh, and then there’s the long-awaited new album, “Master of My Make-Believe,” which debuted at No. 21 on the Billboard 200 chart and has sold 35,000 units since its May 1 release.
Given the modest numbers, it’s no wonder the Brooklyn-based, Wesleyan-educated singer-songwriter, aka Santi White, expressed surprise when fans were singing along to the new record at Club Nokia on Friday night. “It makes me so happy,” she said. The modesty is part of Santigold’s charm, but her new album is anything but, filled as it is with anthems about self-empowerment, fame and rebellion, with the cover art depicting the singer-songwriter as empress, soldier and sexpot.
“People want my power / and they want my station / stormed my winter palace / but they couldn’t take it…,” she sings in “Go!,” which opens the new album and kicked off this show. As many critics have pointed out, the song’s martial cadences sound like a call to arms. But Santigold’s multi-culti mix of agit pop, ’80s new wave, dance hall, dub step and speed rap are more like a call to get up and groove, and that’s what the capacity audience did throughout the 80-minute set.
If Santigold seems to be exhibiting a tad bit of insecurity about the new material — after that first tune, she segued immediately to “L.E.S. Artists” and “Lights Out” from her first album — it’s understandable. “Master of My Make Believe” takes some getting used to, but each listening adds depth and insight, and the tunes become less in your face, with the heavy percussion-and-bass foundations, and more empathetic. “You can make it alone if you try,” she sings in “God From the Machine,” a shout-out to all those freaks with whom she identifies, not unlike Lady Gaga’s little monsters.
Santigold eventually covered much of “Master of My Make Believe” in the show, with her two backup dancers an important theatrical component — their precision falling somewhere between possessed marionettes and the robotic moves of Devo, which she has cited as her favorite band. With the exception of those two dancers, the presentation was fairly minimalist, with a drummer, bassist and keyboardist summoning up samples to fortify Santigold’s muscular grooves.
Santigold’s album sales might suggest slightly more than a cult following, but the power of her music and the respect of her peers suggests something more pervasive. That she’s such a chameleon might make her tougher to market, but that only adds to her mesmerizing appeal.