Nobody Listens to…Die Antwoord

There are some people in this world who just don’t ‘get’ hip-hop.  These people think that rap music is generally scary, offensive, or just inaccessible.  While I would not count myself as such and hope that people of this ilk eventually come around, sometimes hip-hop is scary and offensive and inaccessible.  The upside is that this isn’t always a bad experience, as evidenced by the game-changed extra-strength weirdness that is Die Antwoord.

WARNING: MOST OF THE MUSIC IN THIS POST FEATURES DISTURBING OR OFFENSIVE CONTENT. OR IS JUST REALLY, REALLY STRANGE.

It was a cool, but sunny Indiana day when I walked into the house where my friends Adam and Joe were living.  Joe had just discovered a really wild South African rap group and was all about it.  It was driving Adam insane.  The polarizing nature of Die Antwoord’s music isn’t really all that surprising; the group’s offensively aggressive style is unquestionably abrasive and learning more about the group seems to incite either admiration or rage, but never anything in between.

To gain an understanding of what exactly is going on with the loud and vulgar brand of rave-rap that Die Antwoord deals in an explanation of the South African zef subculture is necessary.  Zef refers to a certain anti-posh attitude, or perhaps more accurately to reveling in the dirty glory of Johannesburg slum life.  Die Antwoord’s vocalists Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er take this trashy-but-extravagant ideal to great lengths, and the band is really as much of a performance art piece as a genuine expression of its members’ roots.  Die Antwoord bristles at being questioned if their presentation of graphic lyrics, prison tattoos, and grungy bleach-blonde mullets is real, but the deeper point is actually that nothing is real.  Ninja himself has expressed the idea that the general public needs something as outlandish as Die Antwoord to wake up from complacently consuming establishment pop culture.  In this sense the hip-hop outfit is just what its name portends: die antwoord is Afrikaans for “the answer”.

Die Antwoord is the current project for the aforementioned Ninja, the erstwhile Watkin Tudor Jones.  Jones has previously helmed the similarly self-aware satirical rap groups MaxNormal.TV and The Constructus Corporation.  While MaxNormal.TV and The Constructus Corporation aimed to take the music industry and mainstream capitalism to task while also producing high-concept multimedia projects, Die Antwoord took a dive into the Zef underside of South African society.  The fascination with art (particularly the work of photographer Roger Ballen) and societal issues has remained, but Die Antwoord presents itself in a much dirtier package than the clean-cut suit-and-tie rapping of Max Normal and the Constructus Corporation.  Not only are there no suits to be seen, it’s fairly uncommon for anyone associated with Die Antwoord to even be wearing a shirt.

Die Antwoord’s core is composed of real-life couple Ninja (Jones) and Yo-landi Vi$$er (a.k.a. Anri du Toit), who trade off hyper-energetic rap vocals and dance moves over the souped-up beats made by their “producer” DJ Hi-Tek, who is associated with the group because he has a “PC Computer” that can make next-level beats.  The group burst onto the Cape Town Zef scene with 2008’s $O$, and following the release of some enlightening music videos on youtube signed a contract with Interscope Records.  Disputes about potentially offensive content and subject matter, however, strained relations between the rappers and the record label, and Die Antwoord split from Interscope to release further material on their own.  The group’s second full-length album, Ten$ion, was released in 2012 on Zef Side Records and picks up almost precisely where $O$ had left off.

The next-level beats that Ninja uses to describe DJ Hi-Tek’s tracks are varied in their influences and their outcomes:  A Die Antwoord song may creep slinkily along to a light piano loop and a minimalist drum click or slam the listener’s ears with syncopated tribal grooves and hard-edged synthesizer stabs.  As accompaniment to the snarling attitude of Ninja and the pint-size anger of Yo-Landi, the beats set up an aural atmosphere that matches the apocalyptically dirty things happening in the songs’ lyrics.  Ninja and Yo-landi’s lyrics aren’t always easily discerned, as English is woven in with Afrikaans, zef slang, and on at least one occasion the Prawn language from Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film District 9.  While the lyrics that do come through are typically unprintably explicit, they also carry important messages; aside from painting a caricature of a sexually aggressive and potentially violent pair of lunatics, Die Antwoord has tackled societal issues from income inequality to ritual circumcision.  The songs of $O$ and Ten$ion are really statements validating the existence of anyone living at South African society’s margins; if the context is grimy and unsettling, it’s equally a statement about the perception of these people and a glamorization of that which is inherently un-glamorous.

Die Antwoord’s music is enjoyable (this may not be the best word here…) alone, but a full appreciation of what is going on isn’t really possible without the visual dimension that the band provides through its music videos and live performance.  It is fair to mention that some of the more evocative moments haven’t been brought to life this way, such as the transition from the impending-doom durge “Doos Dronk” to $O$‘s sublime title track and straight to the triumphant South-African-acapella-meets-dubstep of “Never Le Nkemise 1“, but the group’s performance-art roots lend themselves well to a visual medium.  These videos often make the videos seem more important, as the clip for “Enter the Ninja” introduces the act as the ugly-but-true reflection of South African culture and stars the Cape Town electronic artist and progeria sufferer Leon Botha.  Both the music and the video for “Fok Julle Naaiers“, meanwhile, give zef culture a bad-boy swagger: the track is menacing, and the video features heavily-tattooed and fearsome-looking men glaring in monochrome darkness.  Both “Baby’s on Fire” and “Fatty Boom Boom” are satirical and play up Yo-landi’s role as a female MC that is equal parts sexy and terrifying, her wild makeup and horror-movie contact lenses keeping the viewer from looking away even as the images get ever more off-putting otherwise.  The video for the song “Evil Boy” likely takes the award for both most meaningful and most provocative: monsters, phallic representations, revealing costumes, and a young Xhosa rapper named Wanga all swirl around in the dark underground as the group takes a stand against forcing young men to be ritually circumcised.  Die Antwoord has also taken their carnival of insanity as high as the Late Show with David Letterman, which is important at the very least for the mental image of the mainstream American audience being subjected to the hyperactive wickedness of  “I Fink U Freeky“.  So they have that going for them as well.

The fact that Die Antwoord’s music and the imagery that they choose to represent themselves with probably makes a lot of people squirm is undoubtedly intentional.  For that matter, controversy is essentially one of the group’s stated goals.  The conflict with Interscope that led to the end of their short-lived tenure as major-label artists stemmed from disagreement over some of the ickier points of that album’s subject matter.  In the short few years that Die Antwoord has been performing they have angered both gay rights groups (unintentionally- there are a lot of misconceptions about “Evil Boy”) and Lady Gaga (intentionally and unapologetically), and the shock value approach that the group has chosen to employ in getting their message out is working beautifully.  To paraphrase Yo-landi Vi$$er, the group made its music their own way, and the fact that they’ve been able to garner a cult fanbase without compromising their own vision of artistic integrity is a blessing.  Die Antwoord can be followed through their official website at dieantwoord.com, as well as through facebook and twitter.  Nobody is listening to Die Antwoord, and though the group is often a bit horrifying and not at all something that’s appropriate for polite company, the group has a unique vision for their band on the record and in real life.  The music Die Antwoord makes mirrors their personas: creepy and loud, but strikingly informative and unflinchingly honest.

 

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Album Review Bonanza Part 1: Country, God, or the Girl

As I implied last night when I finally came back to posting about underappreciated music here, I’ll be writing two more pieces this evening.  Later tonight I’ll have a review of a snarling new album by State Radio, but I’m beginning with one of 2012’s most anticipated albums in mind- if for no other reason than that it’s been long-delayed and put off.  When it didn’t drop in May (or June, or July) I started to worry something had gone horribly wrong with K’naan’s follow-up to 2009’s Troubadour.  I’m still not sure why it took so long, but October 16 Country, God, or the Girl arrived.  And I’m writing now to break it down for you.

There are so many things about this album that don’t make any sense.  K’naan seems to be the absolute best as tighrope-walking the line between superstar-level fame and eternal obscurity.  It could be because instead of capitalizing on becoming the 2010 World Cup’s theme music and palling around with will.I.am K’naan took his first trip home in 20-odd years to document famine and destruction in his native Somalia, but the fact that a rap album featuring cameos from Bono and Keith Richards could fly so far under the radar that even fans couldn’t pin down the release date is amazing.  Now that Country, God, or the Girl is finally here, we have an album that will be categorized as rap because K’naan is a rapper, though there is roughly as much singing as rapping, and the hard-edged beats that even I expected from the sneak peak EP More Beautiful than Silence are a minority on the full-length.

Even those slightly more jagged tunes only reflect a more pop sensibility than the rest of K’naan’s music, as work with some really slick producers has yielded familiar tracks like “Is Anybody Out There?” and “Better” (detailed on my write-up of the EP released early this year).  The leadoff single from the new album goes by the name of “Hurt Me Tomorrow“, a piano-driven bouncer that features K’naan straining his voice to the top of his range and delivering lines about putting off a breakup while referencing pop culture figures spanning the past eighty years. “Hurt Me Tomorrow” is undoubtedly a catchy tune, and the drum-machine-plus-bright-piano sound definitely reflects the conventions of post-2000 mainstream hip-hop (think Jay-Z or Cam’ron), though the last remaining vestiges of K’naan’s Somali accent and idiosyncratic vocal stylings keep even a song about such a broad topic at least a tiny bit original.

And subject matter is clearly a dimension of this album in which the artist wanted to diversify.  The references to his country’s civil war and his identity as both an African and a refugee are still plentiful, but in a Rolling Stone video interview the rapper states clearly that he wanted this album to look more introspectively at his own emotions and emotional experiences that listeners anywhere could relate to.  The combination of this new lyrical focus and a concerted return to the samples of soothing acoustic sounds and East African jazz records yields an album that sounds at once more conventional and more left-field than anything K’naan has done.  The understated “Simple“, for example, sounds like a blend of Coldplay, the Police, and Sub-Saharan Mbira music, creating an insistent groove in which the jangly thumb pianos play with the artist’s puzzling over his continued survival.  More than once distinctly East African melodies come into play in electric guitar lines: the album opener “The Seed” explodes into a pounding chant about K’naan’s gratitude for life and drive to be at his best while “Bulletproof Pride” contemplates how to stay friends with a (literal? metaphorical?) mercenary while Bono (yes, that Bono) sings backup.  By the time the record rolls to the standout “70 Excuses” and its slow burn from a minimalist meditation to an afropop-tinged saxophone romp, anything seems fair game.  Country, God, or the Girl is just K’naan making his music his own way, and orating on his emotions and dreams as he carries on.

 

The new album isn’t without its flaws.  I’m always skeptical of will.I.am’s appearance, and his appearance amidst the slappy guitar of “Alone” is unexpected at best and unpleasantly confusing at worst.  Likewise, Mark Foster of Foster the People appears on the last track (it’s technically a bonus track, but the album appears meant to be listened to with everything included) to wail falsettos over hand claps, tambourines, and a churning chorus.  These aren’t necessarily bad tracks, but they definitely feel like half-baked experiments, and these fall into a category with “Gold in Timbuktu” and “The Sound of My Breaking Heart” as less-stellar moments on the record.

 

Having said that, Country, God, or the Girl is in many ways what I was expecting and hoping for.  K’naan continues his evolution as a musician by widening his musical scope while taking his lyrics deeper into his own chest.  The raw passion of The Dusty Foot Philosopher isn’t to be found here, but the rapper gives the listener an equally earnest message with a much clearer head and a more even composure.  It’s rare that he gets terribly specific in his storytelling on this album, but K’naan appears to have hit onto something by speaking to experiences he’s had that his entire listenership also shares.  Even beyond the fact that this is musically a fantastically diverse rap album, and the fact that K’naan’s lyrics feel just as urgent and plaintive as ever, this is quite simply just a lovely modern hip-hop album.  Country, God, or the Girl is a paradox in its simultaneous appearance as a star-studded commercial affair and a socially-conscious mixtape that flows through its architect’s memory with unlikely arrangements of music from around the world.  The album is uplifting at turns and hollow at others, but there’s never a point at which I want to stop listening.

Nobody Listens to…Zacke

Once again I find this column taking me up to the frozen reaches of Scandinavia.  Whether it’s their attractive women, their wild dancing, or their smooth and catchy hip-hop beats, Northern Sweden draws me in.  I’ve said variously that Swedish hip-hop is surprisingly diverse and well-developed, and this week’s column only adds to that argument.  This week I’m spotlighting the inimitable Zacke.

I was probably listening to Zacke for quite a while before I realized who he was.  The young Stockholm-based rapper has a longstanding friendship with the fantastic Northern Swedish hip-hop/swing trio Movits (Click this link to read what I wrote about them back in February), and the two artists frequently collaborate.  Zacke has delivered verses on tracks from both of Movits’ albums and supported the group during their first full American tour.  I’ve been following Movits’ activity for a few years, and upon learning of their protege’s debut album I began looking a little more into this dark-haired young man wearing a shirt emblazoned with a parody of the L.A. Dodgers logo.

Though he currently lives in Stockholm, Zacke (born Zakarias Lekberg) has roots up North in Luleå, thus explaining his connection to Movits and their highly musical swing-influenced brand of hip-hop.  Zacke himself doesn’t take his instrumentals or his style choices so directly from the 1920s, but does incorporate a wide array of musical styles and instrumental arrangements in his songs.  Zacke has toured relentlessly both in Europe and worldwide with his compatriots in Movits, released one full-length album (2010’s Visst är det Vackert) and a few scattered singles, and tried his hand at directing music videos.  The man is active.

Zacke’s music is interesting to listen to in no small part because of the myriad musical influences that can go into any one song, let alone a full album.  Smooth jazz, blues, funk, rock, folk, and electronic music all have a part in the rapper’s tracks, leading to grooves that are as enjoyable during instrumental breaks as during the breakneck lines delivered in verses and hooks.  This is a trait that Zacke’s music does share with Movits: live instruments are prioritized just as high as synthesizers and drum machines in the arrangements, leading to tunes with an 808 beat with a jazz flute solo recorded over it.  Banjos, piano, Rhodes organ, accordion, horns, and percussion all appear on Visst är det Vackert, giving the album an organic feel.  Coupled with Zacke’s instantly recognizable voice and cheeky delivery, this is a rap album that feels cool.  There is a definite attitude to the rapper’s voice, and with every drawn-out syllable and rising inflection the general sentiment of the track is evident even to listeners with no understanding of the Swedish.  It may be that this is just a language particularly apt to be interpreted this way, but Zacke’s rapping style fits in seamlessly with his backing tracks.

The songs of Visst är det Vackert do sweep over a vast range of feels, genres, and tempos.  From lazy backbeats like on the album-opening “Flaskpost från Utopia” and the banjo-driven “Men Nanting!” to upbeat tracks like the country-esque romp “Ser det Kommer“, the album takes the listener in every direction a rap album could musically go with Zacke’s staccato verses and singalong hooks serving as guides.  The album leads off with blues, funk, and a club-banging dance track featuring Movits’ Johan Rensfeldt that is actually an ironic send-up of modern pop music in “Spela Mig På Radion” (“Play Me on the Radio”).  The album does turn reflective in its second half, however, with legitimate ballads and understated layered grooves on tracks such as “Förlorad Generation“, “Öppet Idag“, and “Båtdrinkar“.  Lyrically, Visst är det Vackertcovers topics from the artist’s jet-setting life and the difficulty of maintaining relationships to the cultural melting pot that modern Sweden has become; and the artist’s voice proves to be versatile at conveying abrasive bravado in one moment and a calm pensiveness in another.

Since his first album, Zacke has appeared all over the world of Swedish hip-hop, guesting verses on Movits’ new album and the anthem for their American tour (“Först tar vi Manhattan” or “First we take Manhattan”, an aggressively synth-heavy tune about how “they say that hip-hop was born in the Bronx, but the Bronx was born in Sweden“).  Zacke can also be found on the brilliant Swedish hip-hop sampler Evolution; on a Mighty Boosh-sampling track from Swedish producer Academics’ second album; and on his own terms with his new single “Mammas nye Kille” (Mom’s New Boyfriend”), a loud track with bouncing drums and a healthy amount of electric guitar shredding.

Zacke isn’t currently touring, but a second full-length album appears to be in the works.  For the meantime, the young Zacke is only widening his profile, popping up on hip-hop mixtapes and compilations across Sweden.  The artist doesn’t appear to have a presence on twitter (other than his mentions from his friends in Movits), but can be tracked down at his official website and on facebook.  Nobody is listening to Zacke right now, but the rapper’s unique delivery and carefully orchestrated tracks single him out as one of the best of a burgeoning Swedish hip-hop scene that desperately needs more exposure.

Nobody Listens to…Sol.illaquists of Sound

Though this is still a very young blog series, I imagine that it’s already pretty clear that I really have a penchant for rappers and groups that talk about social issues in inventive ways.  I also geek out over complicated rhyme schemes, extended metaphors, changing meters, and soulful voices.  Orlando-based rap and hip-hop group Sol.illaquists of Sound packages all of these into a slick product that lays everything on the table and still leaves me wanting more.

Sol.illaquists of Sound

For over a year after I was first exposed to the group, the title track from the group’s 2006 debut As If We Existed.  From my first listen I was a fan and proceeded to add the track to playlist after playlist, but I didn’t probe deeper until I heard an advance track from the Sol.illaquists’ 2008 follow-up.  Fast forward four years, and I happened upon a CD copy of As If We Existed at a record store in Dallas.  I’ve been trying to absorb the messages that the Sol.illaquists of Sound lay into their tracks since.

Sol.illaquists of Sound formed in Orlando in late 2002 with the collaboration between producer and DJ DiViNCi and rapper Swamburger.  By involving their respective romantic interests in their musical pursuits, the duo was joined by poet Tonya Combs and singer-emcee Alexandrah to round out the quartet as Sol.illaquists.  The group often lives to subvert expectations and contradict conventional wisdom as a group fronted by duets between a rapper who calls himself “Swamburger” and an intentionally bald female emcee whilst a DJ manipulates as many as four MPC sample sequencers and a slam poet occasionally chips in spoken-word interludes.  Four unique individuals somehow blend seamlessly as Sol.illaquists of Sound, and an unexpectedly cohesive sound is presented.

Sol.illaquists of Sound’s sound itself is one that is simultaneously pleasing to the ear and maddening to the mind.  This is a heady group, with both hyper-intelligent lyrics and musical compositions that require a bit more investment from the listener than a more run-of-the-mill hip-hop group might.  To bring up the listener indeed is key, as the group’s debut album begins with a soliloquy (appropriate) raising up the question of the listener’s role in music; additionally the group has repeatedly stated that their first three albums will center around one concept that has been dubbed “the listener trilogy”.  Processing everything that happens in each Sol.illaquists song is no small undertaking, but the levels each resonate with the letter to the extent that it’s almost possible to fall into the groove and just listen passively. Almost.

The beat and samples that DiViNCi creates are dynamic and varied; smooth guitars exist with hyperactive and syncopated drum machine loops to give a steady sway to each tune.  To this end, “instrumental” solos come in unexpected forms, as synthesized bass and analog drum samples.  On the next layer are Swamburger’s vocals, which are aggressive, percussive, and highly intelligent.  The rapper is clearly no stranger to four-syllable words, and seems equally comfortable unleashing free-flowing rhymes in duplet- and triplet-based time signatures.  In the gaps between Swamburger’s rhymes are Alexandrah’s own rhymes, which are a smooth contrast to her male counterpart’s.  While Swamburger has a short, dry delivery, Alexandrah’s voice slides and glides effortlessly through rhythm, melody, and overdubbed self-harmony to flesh out the vocal lines in Sol.illaquists of Sound’s music.  When all of the group’s components are firing on all cylinders it approaches the sound of a New Orleans brass band with DiViNCi laying down a base over which the two vocalists harmonize and deliver fast and articulate rhymes in unison.

2006’s As If We Existed seems to be a stirring of the listener, an awakening from complacency.  From the opening monologue, the album draws attention to harsh truths of reality in modern urban America while reminding the listener of his or her power to affect that reality.  On the swaying 6/8 groove of the title track, a smooth delivery by Alexandrah gives way to a second verse by Swamburger that may be the most impressive display of on-point rapping I’ve ever heard that releases into the insistence that “you’re not just a voice” with an ending that drops the music out to an a capella conclusion.  And this is only the third track on the album.  The next song itself is another triumph, as the listener is introduced to the “Mark It Place”, in which bigoted and presumptive advertising campaigns are ruthlessly attacked as Swamburger and Alexandrah trade lines and accusations.  The album continues with high points like the inventive hook to “Ask Me If I Care” and the unbelievable alliteration on “Ur Turn”.  Not only is As If We Existed a staggering accomplishment as an album, it is meant to be only the first installment of a trilogy.  Sol.illaquists of Sound set the bar high for themselves.

If As If We Existed was an awakening for the listener, 2009’s No More Heroes is a call to action.  While I’m still processing the album, it takes the implied comic book imagery that adorned the liner notes of As If We Existed and fleshes it out and combines it with even more time-warping rapping, bombastic synth beats, and effortless vocal acrobatics.  Part two of the so-called “listener trilogy” is hard-edged and adds elements like a series of short films and odes to Harriet Tubman, Kunta Kinte, and hip-hop producer J-Dilla.  While Sol.illaquists of Sound look for heroes to reappear and save the comic book caricature parallel universe that the album appears in, the listener finishes the album anticipating a conclusion on the yet-to-be-released third album 4th Wall.

Sol.illaquists of Sound

So this is the state of the listener that features so prominently in this group’s music.  The finale of the concept trilogy is due out later this year, and the more I listen to the first two releases, the more interested I am as two what direction it will turn.  For the time being, sparing live shows and the Solilla website are the main avenues to taking in more Sol.illaquists of Sound.  No one is listening to this intense hip-hop quartet, but the highly intellectual level of the music and the stirring performances each member of the outfit delivers make this a rap band that begs for more listeners (and to engage with them on a personal level).  Sol.illaquists of Sound should have a few more ears bent their way, if only for the upcoming conclusion of a trilogy of interrelated rap albums of undeniable quality.  On As If We Existed, poet Tonya Combs wonders if sound even exists without the listener.  If sound is so reliant on the listener, the Sol.illaquists deserve listeners just to sustain such impressive talent.

Everyone Should Give a Listen to…More Beautiful than Silence

As promised, another piece where I opine about some music or other that I think deserves more recognition.

This piece will be shorter than my usual Thursday weekly posts, but I want to justify my slacking on this week’s piece (it’s about Australian plunderphonics group the Avalanches!).  Additionally, I am wearing this particular EP out and can’t hold off on writing about it any longer.

K’naan has a new EP.

More Beautiful than Silence

While my appreciation for K’naan’s music is well-documented, I am beginning to fear that I may be on the verge of going overboard with my feelings for the Somali-born rapper’s EP released earlier this year.  More Beautiful than Silence is a five-song EP that will serve to tide K’naan’s fans over until the release of his newest full-length this coming May, and based upon impressions of the this newest release expectations for Country, God, or the Girl will be high.  As they should be.

More Beautiful than Silence opens with “Is Anybody Out There?”, a piano-driven rap/sung duet with pop singer Nelly Furtado of “Promiscuous” fame.  The two collaborators on the track share Canada as an adopted home, and while a somewhat unexpected duo the two blend together well.  With slick production and a sound that feels inches away at the verse and miles wide during the chorus, “Is Anybody Out There?” is a strong track with a powerful message of hope for “anyone who’s felt invisible”.  Boasting the added benefits of a popstar wearing hipster glasses and a really moving music video, the lead single from More Beautiful than Silence starts the EP off on a high note.

Next up is “Nothing To Lose”, a more straight-ahead rap tune featuring Nas.  Between hard-edged verses by Nas and K’naan about the trials and tribulations of urban life in the 1990s is a surprisingly upbeat chorus that assures the listener that the bleak street life K’naan (along with countless millions of other young people) grew up in can be overcome.  The music of the song features blasting horns and a persistent vibraphone, and the genius slogan “rep that blue and white” can be heard shouted over a chorus (the Somalian Flag).  This track is also accompanied by a full-fledged music video featuring both rappers discussing the plight of today’s urban youth while the song’s chorus is mixed low beneath it, and was the subject of a recent remix contest from indaba music.  Also of note is that will.i.am has released a remix of the song.  The original remains the best.

Third and fourth on the EP are the title track and a just-add-water instant anthem entitled “Better”, respectively.  “More Beautiful than Silence” is my least favorite song on the EP, but remains a solid track notable for K’naan’s impressive falsetto and an instrumental track that appears to feature the sound of water dripping.  “Better” meanwhile seeks to out-“Wavin’ Flag” anything else K’naan has done.  With syncopated synthesizers, a beat that inspires the listener to jump triumphantly, reverse-cymbal swooshes, and K’naan’s trademark inspirational lyrics the song seems primed to at least be set to highlights of a highlight reel. Stay tuned.

Closing out the EP is the epic “Coming to America”.  As a distinctly African-sounding vocal ensemble invokes (parodies?) “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” sirens blare and K’naan unleashes an aggressive and often tongue-in-cheek retelling of his story from his violent upbringing in Somalia to run-ins with the police in Toronto.  The sense of humor on this song makes it stand out among K’naan tunes, but the social consciousness remains, as the line “Thanks for lettin’ me marry ya/the green card sure looks fine” is followed in short order by “Even in America the hoods need a ticket out”.  On More Beautiful Than Silence as a whole K’naan has really stepped up his profile as a rapper (and honestly as a singer, for that matter), and it’s on “Coming to America” that this really shines.  The Somali-Canadian poet’s flow shifts gears and meters while rising and falling with the emotion of the personal stories he recounts.  “Coming to America” works incredibly well as a song because it fits with popular hip-hop lyrical boasting while being true.  

I am closing in on listening to these five songs a hundred times, and am yet to be sick of any of them.  Instead, I watch with excitement as K’naan makes the rounds of talk shows and late night television and track the artist on twitter.  As I implied earlier, if the new heights in production, singing voice, and aggressive rapping that are demonstrated on More Beautiful than Silence are an indicator of what to expect on the upcoming full LP, fans of the rapper have cause to celebrate.  More Beautiful than Silence seems to be serving as a preview of a future release, but for now it stands alone as an excellent five-song EP from Somalian-Canadian rapper K’naan, who, despite the terrible cliche of ending an essay with a quote, may be “only getting better”.

Nobody Listens to…Nneka

NOTE: I’ve been asked to include more audio of the artists I’m writing about, so I’ll be making a concerted effort to hyperlink to audio or video (usually youtube). So make sure you click all of the hyperlinked text.

OTHER NOTE: I have a twitter! So tweet me about artists you want to hear about here…or whatever else you can think to bother me about.  Tweet @iamkevindhood OR just hashtag something #nobodylistenstothis and I’ll respond!

Now, to this week’s column…

Nneka

I discovered Nneka’s music while geeking out over the artist roster for a music festival that I didn’t really attend.  In the Spring of 2010 I managed to be in Austin during South by Southwest without a wristband to the showcase performances, but researched all of the bands and artists performing anyway. Just in case.  One of these was Nneka, a Nigerian-German soul singer who I couldn’t watch but quickly took note of.

Nneka was born in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region to a Nigerian father and a German Mother in 1980, and lived in the West African nation until she was 19, at which point Nneka moved to Hamburg, Germany to study Anthropology (!) at university.

Also, she’s a powerful singer-songwriter who has been blending R&B, hip-hop, reggae, afrobeat, and funk for the past ten years or so.

Nneka’s music could draw easy comparison to K’naan, but to link two African-born hip-hopping singer-songwriters seems a bit insensitive to the wide scope each artist’s discography covers.  Nevertheless, Nneka’s songs pulsate through intense samples, bouncing drums, and hard-edged guitars.  While incorporating both the musics and lyrical contents of Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Sly Stone, and Mos Def, Nneka weaves a sound that is both familiar and hard to define. Over all of these diverse sound palettes soars the singer’s voice, which is at once soft and pointed.  The degree to which Nneka’s voice can shift from soft crooning to a diva-blasting scream is startling.  When she raps it still seems she is singing, and when she sings a rhythmic articulation that feels like rapping.  The control that Nneka has over her voice and the somehow understated way she often belts out her lyrics is surprising, to say the least.  Nneka’s voice simply is, and its versatility is what gives the singer her unique sound.

Nneka has thus far released three full-length albums, in addition to several compilations and EPs.  A highlight of these is 2010’s Concrete Jungle, which packaged a diverse sampling of hit tracks from the artist’s first two LPs (2005’s Victim of Truth and 2008’s No Longer At Ease) for her introduction to American audiences.  Headlining Concrete Jungle is “Heartbeat”, a neo-soul stomp that rises into emotional pleading at the chorus.  Concrete Jungle also includes the ska-infused “Suffri”, the guitar-driven rap-rock of “Focus”, and a track sung partially in Igbo in “Kangpe”.

Perhaps most notable, however, is “Africans”, a soul song in reggae clothing that appears midway through the compilation.  Like many of Nneka’s songs, “Africans” advocates self-empowerment and love, but in this case takes up the cause of the African continent’s place in the world.  The song calls for the global community to take notice of Africa and Africans’ place in the world, but also for Africans to stop being victims and “wake up”.  On an album of strong messages and plaintive calls to action by the singer (really this applies to both Concrete Jungle and Victim of Truth, on which “Africans” originally appeared), this track stands out as important both musically and lyrically.

Nneka’s latest album, Soul is Heavy (2011), strikes a few more upbeat notes while delivering to the listener more of the soulful reggae (or reggae-tinged soul, as the case may be) that is expected of the singer.  On tracks such as “Sleep” and “Shining Star” the music builds upward in a progression that matches the inspirational tone of Nneka’s lyrics, while the lead single from the album “My Home” begins as a reggae number that morphs into a swinging R&B backbeat.  The savvy with which Nneka continues to blend these genres is astounding, and despite the diversity of instrumentation, melody, tonality, and tone in her music everything blends well into the corpus of the singer’s work.

Nneka is still touring and performing behind Soul is Heavy, and actually taped a performance on BET’s “106 and Park” program today (her segment will air on March 6th).  A North American tour continues through the end of March before moving to the U.K. and mainland Europe into the Summer.  Despite appearances at multiple large music festivals and on a number of American television programs and radio stations, I still don’t know of anyone else who has heard of Nneka.  While no one is listening to Nneka right now, in my opinion the Nigerian’s soulful blend of R&B and reggae with hip-hop elements topped by truly emotive vocals simply demands that more of us listen.

Nobody Listens to…Movits!

This is a difficult post to write.  It’s not for lack of things to say about Movits, but just because it’s hard to type while dancing and pretending to rap in Swedish.  But I’ll give it a try.

Movits

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I first discovered Movits back in the first few months of 2010 while researching artists for jazz installment that I hosted on a college radio station with my friend Jon.  In our diligent and highly scientific combing of the web for new bands from around the world (we managed to get our show coded as “world music” and each week played artists from all over the world in a given genre), Jon happened upon the music video for the Movits single “Fel del av Gården” and fell over himself listing all of the reasons we needed to play it on our show.  I’ve been a fan of Movits ever since.

Movits hails from Luleå, a port city in Northern Sweden that is also home to the winningest professional basketball team in the country (and, based on this video by Movits-affiliated artist Zacke, looks like the American Midwest in movies and TV depictions of the 1960s).  According to the band’s bio, after hearing the big-band jazz classic “Sing Sing Sing” at a party, brothers Anders and Johan Rensfeldt were inspired to blend jazz and swing with hip-hop and rap, creating an exciting sound that has carried them from Luleå all over the world.

After recruiting saxophonist Joakim Nilsson to round out a trio, the young Movits spent three years live-tracking their debut album, 2008’s Äppelknyckarjazz.  Coming from an acoustic background, the group had decided to avoid the use of samples, and such pieced together Äppelknyckarjazz with a full cast of musicians.  The result is an album that is bouncy, groovy, and much more melodic than the run-of-the-mill rap album.  Suddenly the swung backbeat has become the track over which Johan Rensfeldt’s rapped lines flow effortlessly, functioning almost as another instrument in the mix.  From the swaying jazz comp of “A-kasseblues” to the up-tempo single “Fel del av Gården” to the accordion-and-brass-driven closer “Vals på Vinkelgränd”, Äppelknyckarjazz surely captures the exact vibe that the Rensfeldt brothers experienced dancing to swing records at that pivotal get-together.

By some stroke of luck, Stephen Colbert caught a listen of “Fel del av Gården” and invited Movits to perform on his show in July 2009.  The day after their performance, sales of Äppelknyckarjazz skyrocketed on Amazon.com, and a worldwide tour was set into motion.  Armed with the slogan “They say that hip-hop was born in the Bronx, but the Bronx was born in Sweden”, Movits embarked on a series of shows across the U.S., including dates at South by Southwest in March of 2010.

2011 saw the release of Movits’ second full-length, Ut ur min Skalle, a more sample-driven (the band swore off live-tracking every arrangement after the labor of love that Äppelknyckarjazz became), but nonetheless highly original, work continuing to propagate Movits’ hip-hop/swing hybrid sound.  Ut ur min Skalle features much more drum machine and analog synth than the live drums and accordion of Äppelknyckarjazz, but rather than taking life from the record new possibilities are opened.  String-sounds appear, and the drum machines blend with horn patches and analaog effects to produce a sound that still hearkens back to a different era of music.  Bombastic horn arrangements and a driving kick drum power the track “Nah Nah Nah”, keys and a screaming sax solo from Nilsson lead the single “Sammy Davis Jr.”, and a synth-string pad forms the basis for the “love song” “Skjut mig i Huvet” (translated: Shoot me in the Head).  Some elements from the earlier release remain: Nilsson continues to throw in tasteful sax solos behind, underneath, and over Johan Rensfeldt’s vocals, and guest appearances by fellow Swedish rappers such as Timbuktu and Zacke further flesh out the album.


I’m not sure there is a band who reflects their sound as well in their appearance as Movits.  The group never appears on stage without their matching tuxedos and basketball shoes, and their music videos almost universally feature beautiful swedes dancing frantically to the swing tracks Movits has converted into hip-hop tunes.  Videos like the clip for “Sammy Davis Jr.” even reflect the changes made to the new album as a clinical, almost retro-futuristic visual backs up the bounce of the synth organ; even the transition from live instruments to samples is played with in the clip as live musicians are “programmed” into electronic instruments.

I have had the good fortune of seeing Movits perform live three times, each besting its predecessor.  I first watched the band sweat through a performance on the back patio of a pizza restaurant in Austin during South by Southwest 2010.  The afternoon show was free, and broken up by pizza breaks for all involved, and the band hawking what little merchandise they were able to bring.  I walked away from that show with a physical copy of Äppelknyckarjazz I spent too much on and a confirmed love of the band’s music.  My excitement about the group hit a high point last September at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.  Two showcase concerts by my favorite Swedish rap crew had been booked in the town where I attended college.  I went to both of Movits’ shows that weeked, and each time emerged sweaty and hoarse.  The energy and excitement that permeates both of the group’s albums is very much alive and well in their live show.  Even notwithstanding live freestyles and a more horn-heavy arrangement of the Zacke tune “Spela Mig På Radion” (alright, I’ll have to dedicate a separate entry here to him as well), the performances at this past Lotus Festival were among the best live shows I’ve ever seen.

Movits is currently on tour in Europe continuing to support Ut ur min Skalle.  For those of us not on their current tour route, both albums are available at various online retailers, a number of great music videos and live clips can be found on youtube (or linked throughout this post), and anything I neglected to talk about can be consumed at movits.se.  Despite their brushes with U.S. exposure on The Colbert Report and through two nationwide tours, not many people are listening to Movits right now.  In my opinion, the hypnotic blend of swing and hip-hop that forces the casual listener to move at least a little and the devoted fan to jump and jive uncontrollably deserves some more play.