With the likes of artists such as Drake and his many protégés incorporating stylistic principles from African and Caribbean genres into their brand of hip hop, it would seem that rappers from these regions would be garnering more attention currently than ever before. This may be the case, but nonetheless, many of the most prominent rappers that such cultures have to offer, despite influencing many American, Canadian and even English MCs, have only made limited waves on foreign shores. Whilst not one of the biggest examples, South African artist Spoek Mathambo, born Nthato Mokgata, is one such rapper who captured the attention of Western critics, with his celebrated reinvention of Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control, enough to hold a place as one of the most distinguished MCs from his home country to adhere to many of its traditional musical practices. In fact, the place of South African-style dance and pop music is so pronounced in Mathambo’s music, alongside his clear hip hop and electronica roots, that no one stylistic label can quite pin down his sound. From what the musician himself has said about wanting to provide a platform for his nation’s vibrant and diverse music scenes, both present and past, Mathambo’s music has acted as somewhat of a cultural hub, into which influences from all over South Africa have flown, from the many sounds under the broad Afrobeat umbrella to the Johannesburg-originated house subgenre of kwaito. On his fifth and latest full-length studio effort, Mzansi Beat Code, the cultural and stylistic touchstones employed by Mathambo are more varied than ever before, providing for some particularly dynamic and explosive contributions from the artist to South Africa’s rich soundscapes.
As with previous records in the Spoek Mathambo roster, house music establishes the basis atop which much of the material across Mzansi Beat Code is built, providing a much-needed backbone across the entire album that allows the artist to pursue the diverse sounds he wishes to achieve, whilst anchoring such stylings in the consistency maintained by these solid house beats. What deviates slightly from Mathambo’s past output, however, is that the rhythmic influence from South Africa’s homegrown brand of house music, kwaito, is balanced with the genre’s more conventional, Western traits accordingly, often as to allow these beats to take a bit of a backseat, whilst the rest of the instrumental arrangement meshes together various sounds from various shores. The disciplined beat on the opening cut, Want Ur Love, for instance, strays not one bit from the smooth, repetitious bass groove and straight kick drum and off-beat hi-hat patterns of your garden variety house music, but this serves to effectively support the contributions from Johannesburg-based electro-soul sister duo, Kajama, and the featured members of Mathambo’s own music collective, Fantasma. The paired vocals of the sisters, Nongoma and Nandi Ndlovu, clearly take cues from their home country’s traditional style, but their individual singing and rapping sits much closer to soul and hip hop popularised in the US and the UK, especially considering the bouncy flow and sexual lyrical content of the rapping section, whilst Fantasma member, Andre Geldenhuys, provides intermittent licks of jittery, psychedelic guitar. As Want Ur Love seamlessly transitions into the opening spoken word message of empowerment on Black Rose, it becomes apparent that some similar stylistic sources trickle over onto this song, but the piece, as a whole, owes a lot more to the sounds of South Africa. The prominence of a plethora of looped vocal samples across this track is more reminiscent of kwaito than Western house music, and the chanting included at the very end of the cut is seemingly drawn from the traditional folk vocal style of the Zulu people. Of course, as seems to be the mission statement of Mzansi Beat Code, there is a much more eclectic sound to be found beneath the surface of Black Rose, as is made clear by the soaring electric guitar solo towards the track’s backend, and the chopping up and rearrangement of vocal samples that is somewhat evocative of dub music.
Indeed, it would seem that Mzansi Beat Code is at its strongest when it’s at its most diverse and experimental. Some of the best tracks on the record are almost indefinable due to the wide array of genres and sounds that they cover. Volcan, for example, features a lead guitar line that’s suggestive of the desert blues stylings of Malian bands like Tinariwen or even Songhoy Blues, but, rather than simply being played largely clean and with a hint of overdrive for extra crunch, this riff enters with a slow-sweeping phaser effect that would sound at home on a pop rock track. Meanwhile, Fantasma once again appear to represent South Africa’s vocal style, performing alongside Mexican singer Ceci Bastida, with the three girls’ features overlapping as to create a particularly dynamic song, especially when factoring in the sporadic rhythmic changes and fuzzed-out guitar embellishments later on in the cut. On the other side of the spectrum, Landed boasts a booming, industrial-flavoured hip hop beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a track from experimental rap groups like clipping. or even Death Grips, and Loui Lvndn seems to be well aware of this, with his guest appearance seeing him lay down a much moodier and grittier flow than has been heard from him up until now, which suits the cut perfectly. The South African musician’s appearance on Blast Mi Fi is similarly explosive, although the other song on Mzansi Beat Code to feature Loui, Nothing’s Ever Perfect, is one of the album’s more ordinary cuts as far as American rap and R&B crossover goes, and stands as a slight lull in the tracklisting as a result. The singer’s syrupy smooth vocal performance atop a somewhat sparse, pop rap beat is perfectly passable, but it flies so close to much of what can be heard from artists from the US right now that it doesn’t quite live up to the stylistic melting pot of the record at large. Given that the entire modus operandi of Mzansi Beat Code seems to be to marry many different sounds from many different cultures, it only makes sense that the more stylistically varied and explorative tracks are the more successful, whilst the songs that, like Nothing’s Ever Perfect, adhere almost exclusively to one sound over another don’t quite capture the spirit of the rest of the record.
The eclectic approach to songwriting employed by Spoek Mathambo on Mzansi Beat Code undoubtedly injects practically every song on the album with its own unique sound, and this is wherein the greatest successes of this release lie. In fact, not only do most of the tracks on the record display varying individualities from one another, but certain cuts see a definitive melding of styles that isn’t quite like anything I’ve heard before. Although not every song is quite as strong as this, and whilst some tracks could benefit from a compositional structure that is as interesting as their overall sound, Mathambo has unequivocally progressed the fusions of hip hop and various forms of South African music pursued on his previous projects and expanded them to something much more grand and indulgent, and Mzansi Beat Code is perhaps his most defining work to date as a result.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10