July 3, 2012

Review: The Very Best – ‘MTMTMK’

Posted in Reviews tagged , , , at 1:10 pm by essentiallyeclectic

The Very Best – MTMTMK

The appearance of Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig on the title track from Warm Heart of Africa – the 2009 debut album from pan-global genre-hoppers The Very Best – was telling in more than one way. First of all, Koenig’s own band were simultaneously enjoying massive success while fighting off a backlash from some quarters -one accusing them of pillaging the same West African highlife tradition that Messrs Gabriel and Simon had done 25 years previously, and converting it into hipster capital. Secondly, the catchy, indie-ripe single stood apart from the rest of the album, which delivered a hard, synth-heavy take on African-inflected electro-pop, and hinted strongly at something very exciting brewing in the group’s London studio.

MTMTMK is the realisation of Warm Heart of Africa‘s potential vision – a real introduction of African urban styles to the hipsters of London, New York and the rest. This is the sound of contemporary African pop filtered through European eyes – more afrobeats than afrobeat.

Malawi-born vocalist Esau Mwamwaya’s influence can be felt more clearly here, as the album appears to be a straight collaboration between him and London-via-Sweden-based producer Johan Hugo. Hugo’s co-conspiritor in Radioclit (the DJ/production duo that worked on Warm Heart of Africa), Etienne Tron, is absent from the setup this time around, leaving Mwamwaya and himself to concentrate on producing a much more focused record.

As with that first record, there is a wealth of guests here – yet there’s no sign of Koenig, MIA et al, as the contributions come almost exclusively from either incumbent African artists or British-based immigrants with heritage from The Plateau Continent.

Bromley singer and session guitarist Seye pops up on ‘Kondaine’, a sugary slice of Afro-pop with the contagious naivety of the likes of Bojo Mujo in its childlike beat, while another Londoner, MNEK jumps on the auto-tune to ride over ‘Rumbae”s octave-hopping synths.

The largely beatless ‘Bantu’ features weighty vocal performances from the legendary Baaba Maal alongside the enduring Amadou and Mariam, the track given an eastern twinge by some melodic guitar lines, before Senegalese reggae/hip hop artist Xuman blesses the ruff n’ tuff digi-dub of Mghetto.

Yet, despite the numbers, Mwamwaya and Hugo remain fully in control of the album’s direction, with some of its loftier moments the product of the duo striking out on their own. Standout single ‘Yoshua Alikuti’ is a true “summer anthem” (for want of a far better, and less cringe-inducing phrase): a thick slice of African dancehall/hip hop with an infectious hook. Its accompanying video is a sly spoof on Lil Wayne’s clip for ‘A Milli’, with Mwamwaya aping the Young Money man as he rolls round a Nairobi slum. The metronomic ‘I Wanna Go Away’, all leaping synths and rib-rattling drum machines, brings a smile, while the bouncing house of ‘Rudeboy’ would sit nicely on the sound systems of any European club – impeccably straddling that border between genuinely innovating, exciting electronica and tedious Guetta-ised trash.

A more commercialised strain of afrobeats has really captured the imagination in countries with a large African diaspora, indicated by crown prince of the genre D’Banj landing a lucrative contract with Kanye’s GOOD Music label. Now here’s The Very Best to show how little of the surface the likes of P-Square or Ice Prince have scratched, and what glorious treasures lie beneath. MTMTMK is not just a clever bit of collaboration with some forward-thinking production; it’s also heaving with tunes.

Read this review in context over at THE 405

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