What I’m Feeling: the August 2016 Comeback Edition (Part One)

It’s been awhile since I did one of these.

Regardless, here it is: my monthly occasional once-in-awhile rundown of music that I’m feeling right now. Today’s edition is all local (to avoid clashing with something I’m a part of on another platform that will reveal itself in a week or so. I’ll update this post with a link when it drops). A couple of these are a little dated but – like I said – it’s been a long time. Besides, dopeness is timeless.

Warning: it’s pretty packed. Up next, I’ll do a non-music one. We’ll see if I can keep it up. Here goes.

Kuvie

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A couple of months back, I wrote my thoughts on how I thought Kuvie had low-key invented a new genre/subgenre of music or something. I would later see him do a live music set as part of DJ Keyzzz’ BeatPhreaks Live gig at Alliance Francaise, and it exceeded my already high expectations. I would definitely pay money to go see Kuvie headline. He hasn’t let up since then, especially on the named ‘Grind’: Vision DJ’s collaboration with Ayisi Ican (AI). One of my favorite tunes of the moment by my favourite producer of the moment under the auspices of one of my favourite DJs.

RedRed – How Far

The most important/topical/urgent song on this list. Awhile back, RedRed – the outfit consisting of M3nsa (who is still cedi-for-cedi the most complete Ghanaian artist in existence and needs to bless us all with another solo album ) and ELO – dropped a video with a live performance of what sounded like a sparse, next-level electronic rework of the Ghanaian national anthem. It got a lot of my people excited. After it finally premiered on Ms. Naa’s Ryse & Shyne – suitably on independence day – Malaka wrote a whole blog post about it. There was awhile there when I thought the lyrics would date because the President ‘solved’ dumsor bi saa.

False alarm.

VI Music

The admiration I have for Adomaa extends to her entire crew, really. VI Music is fast becoming less of a label than it is an entire creative movement encompassing Adomaa herself, and the collective dopeness that is Akotowaa, Robin Huws, Reynolds the Gentleman, Tronomie and more. More than just their music, I like the whole ‘squad’-ness of their operation and how they really are not about fitting into modern Ghanaian musical templates; even with each other. Their sounds are actually diverse as heck. No artist here sounds like the other. And even their artwork drips with attention to detail.

The Gentleman could be Ghana’s Wizkid. He sure has the energy (as anyone who was at the Afraba concert can testify). Unlike Wizkid however, he is also a producer, which might be why he sings about more than just how he wants to part with his money on account of someone’s ass/body/waist/dancing/whatever (And the occasional song about poverty. Don’t get me wrong: I love Wizkid. But daaamn… he always sings about the same things). I don’t know how my people will respond to that, but it works for me.

Robin Huwes is all about love, stripped-down acoustics and a genuine vulnerability rarely heard around these parts:

My (adopted baby cousin) Akotowaa beautifully blurs the lines between spoken word, rap, singing and the good old fashioned art of actual songwriting on IWITP. And I love it:

Adomaa’s brother (& my former student) Tronomie just dropped his debut track, ‘Breaking Bars’. I’m hearing Kwabs and Gallant influences (at a time when few musicians out here have probably even heard of those two): not a bad thing at all.

VI gives me hope.

DJ Juls feat. Mr Eazi x Eugy x Sarkodie – Teef Teef

It’s beautiful to see a good thing come together. Juls has been crafting this African-sample-heavy sound for years without getting the due he deserves. For awhile, I thought he’d left it behind to explore other (equally dope) sounds with his homeboy Mr. Eazi (their creative collaboration is to Ghanaian music what Martin Scorcese’s partnerships with DeNiro and DiCaprio have been to Hollywood). But then he comes back with this. Beats 1’s Julie Adenuga named it the sound of the summer and she’s right. If this is not on your playlist, you’re failing.

Cina Soul – Julor

I was late listening to Cina Soul’s brilliant single, only doing so after the homie Paa Koti schooled me to it and my mind’s twin, Debbie Frempong insisted to me that it features what may be the most flawless vocals she’d ever heard from Ghana. And then I learned that it was produced by Elidot’s former student, Odunsi and that it also features different-sounding raps by the man M Dot. Cina (who really is the sweetest human being in person) just dropped her EP, and while  I don’t think it quite matches the brilliance of this track, it’s clear that her potential is crazy. Watch this one.

IFKR ft. Odunsi – Omo Gbono

I should be mad at Ashesi’s finest two DJs – K3V and Franklin – for keeping from me the fact that their Major Lazer-loving asses are also creating original ‘afro-EDM’ tunes. But by the time that synth-y sound drops after the chorus, all is forgiven really. Fun track. I’m curious to hear what else they are cooking up.

Odunsi ft. Okuntakinte – Happy Hour

Odunsi is the future. There: I said it. I remember thinking this when EDWVN drew my attention to his tracks Nasty Horns and Nikki. Crisp production. Diversity. Imagination. The man whose influence is felt on the last two tracks I mentioned has also released an EP and my favourite cut by far is this one, featuring his (unapologetically controversial) Ashesi  classmate, Okuntakinte, who is on good form here.

Villy & the Xtreme Volumes – WMM (Wia My Money)

Villy has been owning Accra’s live music scene for a few years now. He reminds me of two of my old friends from London – Lyric L & Ty: artists whose live performances are so on point that they make fans of people who have never heard their music before. Villy’s EP Humanimals shows musical growth and this is showcased perfectly on this angry, Miles-Davis-sampling, African blues track, WMM.

African leaders: come take your subs… and bring us our money while you’re at it.

Worlasi

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Yoyo Tinz have been evangelizing about Worlasi for a minute and it’s easy to see why. Charisma, a unique style, lyrical depth and locally-relevant content that all Ghanaians can relate to all make Worlasi a contender. He shines on features, as he does here with m.anifest:

And – just like King Kendrick – he’s dropped an EP of unreleased tracks:

Honorary Mention

YG & Nipsey Hussle – FDT

Hardly local, but I must admit that it does capture a few of my sentiments on a topic of potential international significance. The part two featuring Macklemore and G-Eazy is on regular rotation in the Ankomah-Graham household.

Speaking of part twos, stay tuned for Part Two. Next week. Maybe.

The Gospel of Pablo

There’s a scene in the biopic Ray where an irate group storm one of Ray Charles’ shows to (basically) insist that he stop taking gospel songs and ‘secularizing’ them.  I think of this scene every time I hear Christians who complain about ‘secular’ music.

Why do we always have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the zeitgeist?

Modern gospel music is a strange thing. From a musical standpoint, it’s not actually a genre per se. Instead, it borrows the sounds of other genres (including those its listeners sometimes criticize) and slaps God-related lyrics over them; both reversing and copying what Ray Charles did.

I remember all the shade Kirk Franklin caught (back when I was in secondary school) for his ‘gospelization’ of ‘secular’ hip-hop and R&B. His critics could have looked at it as some kind of reclaiming for gospel of what Charles adapted. After all, R&B is the musical descendant of the soul music that Charles co-invented through secularizing gospel music in the first place.

But no.

Thankfully (and regardless of such creative conservatism), Franklin’s kind of gospel is now very much the norm in Christian circles, at least out here in Ghana. Yet some who have no problem listening to Kirk are still at great pains to draw distinctions between the sacred and the secular; criticizing artists like Adomaa (a preacher’s daughter catching flack for singing outside the church although all her lyrics are in line with her Christian principles), Paapa (who has also shared labels/stages/songs with non-gospel artists) and (still!) Kirk Franklin for anything from not limiting themselves to gospel to associating themselves with sinners. They must be doing something right: Jesus was accused of the very same in his lifetime.

… aaaaand in walks Kanye West.

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Say what you want about his out-of-studio shenanigans: seven critically-acclaimed albums deep, the man has had one of the longest runs in music history. Ever. Kanye’s politics may bore me to tears, but the man is talented. That said, no one in my musical circles had particularly high hopes for his new album (it’s a long story: we’ll tell you about it in a podcast someday).

What rekindled my interest in (‘SWISH‘… sorry, I meant ‘Waves‘… Oh: slight correction…) ‘The Life of Pablo‘ was this headline from Relevant Magazine:

Kanye West’s New Album May Be a Gospel Album Actually

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the word ‘gospel’ that gave me hope here.

Same as it was before I became Christian, gospel is rarely a particularly interesting or innovative genre to me. I hold gospel to a higher standard. It’s not enough to simply praise God with your lyrics. The way I see it, if you’re dedicating your music to a being you worship, then it should blow minds, stretch paradigms and birth new forms. I’m a DJ and when I’m mixing songs together, I may string together songs with similar themes but I’m mostly focused on beats, melodies and such. If your music is a reflection of a God-given gift, then your instrumentation and arrangements and concepts and production, mixing and mastering should all push the envelope. You should never be accused of sounding stagnant. Why? Because creativity is the closest thing (besides reproduction) that humans have to creation. It is a chance to emulate the being you claim created you.

Show it.

The gospel music I usually hear often presents watered down (or watered-up, depending on how you choose to look at it) versions of other genres, without adding anything creative. There are exceptions. Sadly, they aren’t that popular. In contrast, hip-hop (especially Kanye West’s style of it) is often based on samples, opening it up to accusations of being derivative, and yet it still does something creatively interesting to those original sounds.

So, it was obviously the combination of the words ‘Kanye West’ and ‘Gospel’ that caught my attention. Kanye’s public persona is that of a man unhinged and listening to ‘The Life of Pablo‘ (apparently a reference to Paul) confirmed my suspicions, while also shattering any of my doubts in Kanye’s ability to produce yet another creative, interesting and at times awesome album (‘Ultralight Beam’ and ‘FML’ are on loop right now). I have a bunch of problems with the album and I’m not sure I’d call the final cut gospel (whatever that really means), but it’s a deeply human one, and somewhere in there is one of the most earnest cries to God – both in praise and in need – that I’ve ever heard.

There is not much I can say from a critical perspective about ‘Pablo’ that has not already been written elsewhere. I had wanted to write a post looking at it as a gospel album. Then I listened to the Forth District podcast dedicated to dissecting the album track-by-track, and it says everything I was going to say and then some.

So I highly recommend you listen to it too. Especially if you’re not interested in gospel.

A (Mad Late) Review of Lady Jay’s ‘Venus’

I don’t remember who preceded Lady Jay the first time I saw her perform at an AccraDotAlt Talk Party a few years back. I vaguely remember that there were two or three other acts, but specifics evaporated the moment Lady breathed into the mic. She tore two ballads so beautifully apart that my eyes argued with my ears over how a voice rich with that much pain could emerge from such an obviously teenage frame.

After that, I would regularly bump into her at Panji Anoff’s Pidgen Music home studio (alongside the likes of the FOKN Bois and Yaa Pono). I watched while she tried various genres on for size – under the patient mentorship of African Relaxation Techniques’ Sewor Okudzeto (*salute*) – in search of a musical persona balancing the fun and rebellion of her youth with the maturity of her pain. For a while, the latter came more easily to her than the former (except on loose tracks like ‘Turn the Bass Up’ or DJ Juls’ remix of ‘Chillin’’ ).

With ‘Venus’ however, Lady cracked the formula, finding a sound that perfectly captures her fun, but even more so her quirkiness and rebellion. I was once worried about how she would differentiate her style from her friend, Efya’s. On ‘Venus’ however, she did so with confidence, setting herself very clearly apart from the ever-expanding roster of Ghanaian R&B singers.

‘Venus’ is NOT for everyone: it’s poppy, it’s abrasive and – with the exception perhaps of ItzTiffany – I doubt any singer out here would be brave enough to try out something this different. But somehow (as the song progresses) it works.

I’m going to honest here. Ghanaian songwriting in English can be quite um… basic. Okay, I’ll be Poetra Asantewaa-honest: it’s ***t. On ‘Venus’ however, Lady mixes it all up with her Pidgen Music influences and it works for what it is, creating the kind of singalong that has powered many a recent pop hit. I doubt she is actually “badder than Erykah Badu…” but the fact that Erykah is Lady’s standard for badness says a lot about Lady. Like Badu, she is not afraid to chart her own creative style. With an impossibly bigger budget, Venus would actually work well with a Missy Elliot-style video. Missy made an entire career out of converting quirkiness into commercial success: Lady could aim to do the same.

A major part of what makes Venus work is its production.

Continuing what he started with E.L’s (much slept on) ‘Agbadza’, Kuvie may have created an entirely new highlife/hiplife sub-genre while no one was watching. I remember listening to the BBC World Service’ documentary, A Short History of Five Notes, and hearing (the great) Professor John Collins tell (the brilliant) DJ Rita Ray how the ‘clap-clap-clap… clap-clap’ beat that underlies most Ghanaian music is a simplified version of a more complex beat from way back.

Kuvie’s genius has been to go back to that original beat and juxtapose it against the speaker-destroying 808 basslines that characterize today’s trap music. It’s a brave move, as it does not automatically lend itself to Ghanaian dancefloors. It will – however – bump the absolute heck out of your car’s trunk.

The weakest thing about Venus is Sarkodie’s rhyme. As he himself might say, ‘HUH?!’

I am as big a Sarkodie fan as the next Ghanaian (he’s such a force out here that it will soon probably be a citizenship requirement to like his music), but I have to admit to face-palming almost every time he deviates from delivering Twi/pidgin rap masterpieces and tries rhyming in English. He showed promise on ‘New Guy‘, but his rhyme on ‘Venus’ sets the movement back – waaaay back – both in terms of style and (bizarrely American-aping) content. Obidi is capable of so much more than this.

Either way, I look forward to more GH genre-bending from Lady Jay and other local artists. And I look forward to the challenge of dropping Venus the next time I DJ at the Phreak Out Live Music Festival After Party this Saturday (Feb. 20th).

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