Nick Bollinger reviews the global hip-hop of Nigerian rap star Burna Boy; a funky tonic for dark times from Fantastic Negrito; and the personal, political blues of Darren Watson.
Twice As Tall by Burna Boy
When I last discussed the Nigerian rapper and singer Burna Boy back in March his album African Giant had been out for just over six months and was still picking up listeners, and I wasn’t expecting to hear anything new from him for a while. But the African Giant has been experiencing a period of accelerated growth, and last month saw the release of a brand new album, aptly titled Twice As Tall.
It’s no mystery why Burna Boy has gone from being an African giant to a global one. In addition to his personal charisma, his music is extremely hooky. With its shiny, digital production, it is right at home in the current hip-hop landscape: rapped verses framed by big melodic choruses, autotune prominently audible. And this time around, Burna Boy has got some heavyweights to help out with those chorus hooks. One of the central songs on this new album is ‘Monsters You Made’ and features Coldplay’s Chris Martin.
Burna Boy might have built a pop-rap monster, but it’s also one of the more pointed political tunes I’ve heard in a while, addressing 500 years of colonialism in Africa, and laying blame for present problems firmly at the feet of the colonists. But the metaphor might ring just as true in present-day America, where Burna Boy’s audience seems to have grown exponentially. That’s got to be partly thanks to some high-level boosters. In the executive producer’s chair for Twice As Tall he had hip-hop magnate Sean Combs, and the album is scattered with cameos of the kind one might expect on a US hip-hop blockbuster. The beats of Anderson Paak drive one song (‘Alarm Clock’), the voices of veterans Naughty By Nature feature on another, and there’s British rap-singer Stormzy on ‘Real Life’.
But these collaborations are Burna Boy at his most generic; as productions they could have come from almost anywhere, but are not really typical of Twice As Tall as a whole. Though he’s working on a world stage, collaborating with American and British stars as much as African ones, Africa remains central to his orientation. And though he’s from Nigeria, his approach is Pan-African.
There are funky, tropical Highlife-inspired tunes like ‘Onyeka’.In the harmonies of a track like ‘Wonderful’, it’s like hearing some digital-age version of South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
And the opening track features a soaring cameo from Senegalese star Youssou N’Dour, though it’s preceded by an extended witty sample of the track from which Twice As Tall takes its name. It took me a while to place the voice; then I realised it was Pat Boone, whose dubious claim to fame was his insipid cover of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ in the 1950s. It's an ironic reminder of the pop industry’s racist history, to kick off an album that overturns some of the racial barriers that are still standing.
Other distinctly African elements run right through the record, from the multiple languages that include English and Yoruba as well as Pidgin dialects, to his programmed beats, which are more likely to reference traditional African rhythms than rock or R&B. And yet he’s also taken what he likes from hip-hop, which is plenty. In a way what Burna Boy has made with Twice As Tall is world music in the most genuine sense; not some ethnic artefact wheeled out by curators and musicologists, but music that has overcome the hegemony of western pop to become popular all over the world, on its own terms.
Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? by Fantastic Negrito
When it comes to doing things on one’s own terms, Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz would make a good Exhibit A.
Under the name Fantastic Negrito this Oakland-based singer-bandleader makes music that defies categorisation, but encompasses a lot of things I like, and they all swirl around together on his new album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? The opening track, ’Chocolate Samurai’, makes a rousing curtain-raiser; a funky gospel tour-de-force that both acknowledges our anxieties and offers respite from them. All you have to do, he seems to be saying, is follow his lead and get happy.
Gospel is an element in Fantastic Negrito’s music, but it becomes apparent pretty quickly that he’s not on some happy-clappy church trip, but rather harnessing the music’s uplifting energy for his own ends. Which are what? Like Prince before him, that’s not always entirely clear. In those two tracks we’ve heard, it’s a kind of all-embracing acknowledgement of life’s struggles and a feel-good tonic to help get us through them.
At other times, it’s a little more mystical. There’s a song called ’Platypus Dipster’ and your guess as to what that means is probably as good as mine, but it sure rocks. Fantastic Negrito’s fusion here reminds me of his Bay Area forerunners Sly and the Family Stone, who similarly mixed blues, funk, soul and gospel into a roof-raising brew. I’m picking Sly Stone has been a big influence on Dphrepaulezz; he shows off a distinctly Sly-ish yowl on ‘All Up In My Space’.
Though he uses drum loops and there are flashes of hip-hop - including a rapping cameo from Tank and the Bangas' frontwoman Tarriona Ball - Fantastic Negrito’s style is mostly fashioned from older materials, from 70s soul to blues riffs; not that anyone is trying to recreate Robert Johnson or B.B. King here. Still, Dphrepaulezz understands the expressive nature of the blues, and every so often he or one of his cohort will let rip. On a song called ‘Your Sex Is Overrated’ it’s the Japanese guitar master Masa Kohama.
If you’ve seen any live clips, you’ll know Fantastic Negrito is a terrific frontman. Wild-haired and following a style guide of his own, he is like a Sly or a George Clinton; a Master of Fun. His leadership skills apparently extend to his offstage life as well, where he administers a small urban farm that, in part, serves to keep vulnerable youths off the streets. And while coming on like a funky Pied Piper, those streets remain close to his thoughts, which are crystallised in little interludes like ‘Justice In America’.
Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is rousing, rocking, uplifting, yet it’s constantly poised on the edge of desperation. If the music sometimes evokes nostalgia, the world it comes from is a modern and very dark one. With his skill and charm, the ebullient Mr. Dphrepaulezz is simply doing what he can to shine some light.
Getting Sober For The End Of The World by Darren Watson
Blues is a music that lends itself to long careers. ’It’s been here’, as John Lee Hooker said, ‘since the world began’. And local bluesman Darren Watson has been styling his version of it now across four decades. But how do you make that music your own? In Watson’s case, that’s increasingly meant telling the stories that mean something to him.
Ernie Abbot, the caretaker of Wellington Trades Hall who was killed in a 1984 bombing aimed at the heart of the country’s union movement, is eulogised in a powerful blues dirge that sits right at the centre of Darren Watson’s new album, Getting Sober For The End Of The World. The watchdogs of public security evidently didn’t anticipate the attack, and no one has ever been arrested for it, and it clearly haunts Watson. It’s not the first time he’s trained his lens on the country’s political landscape; there was his biting ‘Planet Key’ song in 2014, which the electoral commission weirdly mistook for an election advertisement. You could say politics provided the backdrop for everything on this latest album, though nothing else is as specific as the ‘Ernie Abbott’ song. But the title track seems to sum up the general mood of impending disaster.
Elsewhere, the politics are more personal, and perhaps even more blue. ‘Broken’, the heartfelt confession of a damaged soul, draws from the same deep well that produced such classic blues songs as ‘It’s My Own Fault’ and ‘Serves Me Right To Suffer’, and with Terry Casey providing that very expressive harmonica it really doesn’t need any further adornment. It reminds me, as quite a bit of the album does, of Muddy Waters’ classic Folk Singer album from the 60s, in which the pioneering electric bluesman presented himself unplugged, long before MTV had made it a brand. Watson, who has fronted fully-electric lineups in the past, already tested this less-is-more approach on his last record Too Many Millionaires, and as it is obviously working for him he’s decided to stick with it a bit longer. The quieter settings tend to mean slower tempos, but also push him at times beyond what you would strictly call blues. And in the case of ’The Love I Had', written by under-rated local songsmith Matt Hay, that’s a very good thing.
Getting Sober For The End of the World is personal and local, which in my book are big pluses when its comes to making a blues record. But it also features a guest appearance by fellow guitarist Rick Holmstrom, current band leader for the great Mavis Staples. He and Watson work their guitars around each other with total empathy; they speak the same musical language. Which just goes to show that however personal and local this music is, it is also connected to a bigger community.