The opening moments of Kenna’s New Sacred Cow consist of what sounds like single organ notes fed through a fuzz pedal and then a tremelo pedal, complemented in the left channel by a desperate echoing male voice that’s “crying to anything that’s out there” and a lower-pitched harmony. The whole package is just slightly weirder than what we’ve come to expect from Chase Chad of the Neptunes and N.E.R.D., who produced this album, but it gets the job done in introducing a truly bizarre and not altogether radio-friendly record.
New Sacred Cow is the full-length debut of Ethiopian-native Kenna who was raised in the U.S. presumably on Stevie Wonder and synth-drenched ’80s pop. Though the ’80s have had a significant influence on albums that have been released as of late, the results have often been disastrous. This album doesn’t yield disastrous results, but it does narrowly escape disaster at times.
This kind of duality can be heard on “Freetime,” the second track (but first full song) on New Sacred Cow. The track immediately throws the listener into a new wave-y barrage of programmed dance beats and repetitive synth sounds that could have been lifted from Frogger. “Freetime”s lyrical content borrows from what one can call a 1980s standard: “I need the free time, I need to get away … ” “I some ‘me’ time … ” The melody is strikingly familiar, as this too may warrant comparisons from an all-too-recent decade of many musical tragedies. But there’s a sudden unexpected break in the song’s quick tempo before the chorus arrives that hearkens back to the flowing oddity that preceded this track and opened New Sacred Cow. It is this five-second interlude that comes out of nowhere that may set Kenna apart from 2003’s very boring 1980s musical revival. But while such idiosyncrasies throughout Kenna’s debut add to the album’s element of strangeness and overall eclecticism, they may prevent the mainstream recognition that the Neptunes’ production work has gotten used to.
“Man Fading” is considerably slower in tempo and more hypnotic, with swirling backward drums and background harmonies that follow from the left to the right speakers. “Sunday After You” and “I’m Gone” include catchy sing-along choruses, consistent with a 1980s theme, but are nonetheless punctuated by typically strange N.E.R.D.-like backdrops.
The album’s title track is a complex, fantastic pop experiment. “New Sacred Cow” begins as a moody piano ballad. It’s hints of melancholy, as presented by winding Moog sounds and subtle synths, are soon abandoned when stuttering drums enter, accompanied by louder piano chords and defiant vocals that remind us: “I don’t have the patience to watch you looking down on me, and I don’t need a reason to feel love … from anyone.” Kenna’s strongest lyric is spoken over drumless full organ chords right before the next verse starts when he says, “Your only love is yourself.” Solid.
Kenna may be dangerously close to becoming sugary radio-friendly pop. As there certainly would be nothing wrong with gaining popularity by way of this country’s radio monopoly, New Sacred Cow has a lot to offer in its keen avoidance of being too much of an ’80s throwback. Kenna’s work can be seen as an “in-betweener,” teetering on the edge of becoming exactly like his nerdy ’80s-loving peers with the occasional silly lyric and instrumentation. The album is too criminally catchy to be overlooked, and the listener can easily appreciate the creative production efforts so evenly dispersed throughout New Sacred Cow.