This week I look at releases from three different continents, all wrestling with political and racial issues. Nigeria’s Burna Boy employs Afro-fusion, U.S. hip-hop duo Run The Jewels rattle off fast-paced hip-hop, while anonymous UK collective Sault sing about black-centric issues over R&B, disco, and house.
Normally I present these reviews of new releases in order of preference, but in this case they’re in alphabetical order.
Twice As Tall
Burma Boy’s African Giant was one of my favourite records from last year. It’s a tough act to follow, but the title of Twice is Tall maintains the bravado. It’s a bigger budget record, produced by Diddy and featuring a long list of guest artists. In places Burna Boy’s Nigerian identity is subsumed under the more mainstream approach – this is surely the first record where Pat Boone, Naughty By Nature, Chris Martin, and Youssou N’Dour share album space – but there are enough great moments here to make it a worthy follow-up.
While some of the collaborations drag, there’s plenty of vibrant Afro-fusion on Twice as Tall. It helps that Burna Boy’s voice is so warm and supple – I’d happily listen to him sing the phone book. The songs that stay the closest to Burna Boy’s African heritage, like ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Onyeka (Baby)’, are the most irresistible – placed around a third of the way through Twice as Tall, they reinvigorate it after a sluggish start.
Of the collaborative material, the opener ‘Level Up (Twice As Tall)’ works despite featuring Youssou N’Dour and a sample of Pat Boone. The collaborations with Chris Martin (on ‘Monsters You Made’) and Stormzy (on ‘Real Life’) are less convincing.
Twice as Tall feels like a bare-faced bid for global superstardom – deserved, but the crossover attempts aren’t as effortlessly sincere as the African-flavoured material.
Run the Jewels
As the title implies, RTJ4 is the fourth album from the hip-hop duo of El-P and Killer Mike. Both had enjoyed moderate success for years before joining forces as Run the Jewels. Given the current political climate in the US, it’s more serious than previous records – El-P told Rolling Stone that it’s “all fire”. The record dropped in early June 2020, a couple of weeks after George Floyd’s death. Scarily, it contains a reference to an earlier victim of police brutality – the 2014 death of Eric Garner – with words that apply to Floyd as well “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe””.
That line’s taken from standout track ‘Walking in the Snow’. Over an ominous backing, the pair deliver other incisive lines like:
Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent
Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit
If even one scrap a what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different
What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it
I’d say you lost your Goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with
The non-stop intensity can feel oppressive, and the use of cameos is welcome. Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha delivers the record’s most memorable hook on ‘Just’ – “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar” – even though Pharrell’s repeated “geddit” in the same song is grating. Mavis Staples adds gravitas to ‘Pulling the Pin’, delivering a pretty yet tense chorus.
RTJ4 is a timely record for 2020 – it’s not an easy listen, filled with tough beats and incendiary lyrics, but it’s the right album for these times.
British collective Sault have eschewed all the usual rules of music-making in their brief and eventful career. They’ve kept their identities veiled, never played a live gig, never released a music video, and have produced material at a breakneck pace. Untitled (Rise) is their fourth record, incredible when their debut 5 only dropped in May 2019 – Sault music is coming so thick and fast that it feels like one continuous body of work.
While Sault have only subtly disclosed their identities, the leader is London producer Inflo. Scarily, on top of his work with Sault, he also produced critically acclaimed 2019 albums by Little Simz (Grey Area) and Michael Kiwanuka (Kiwanuka). Sault’s sound is minimalist, and built around rhythm.
Untitled (Rise) is stunningly diverse, incorporating elements of R&B, funk, and house, but unified by Sault’s aesthetic. There’s a gorgeous piano-led instrumental (‘The Black and the Gold’), disco-flavoured tracks like ‘Son Shine’, ‘Strong’, and ‘Fearless’, abrasive beats on ‘Street Fighter’ and ‘Free’, and broodiness on ‘Scary Times’.
Because of their quick turnaround, Sault are able to address current issues like #blacklivesmatter. Most striking is ‘You Know It Ain’t’, where Sault’s vocalist cuttingly dismisses tokenism; “Yeah I see your little post, talking ’bout BLM is my motto/But you know it ain’t.”
For a fourth album release within less than 18 months, Untitled (Rise) is stunningly accomplished, and it’s difficult to think of many precedents for this level of creative outpouring.
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The song Wonderful… It’s hard not to like it…I like the harmonizing in the beginning a lot…toward the end, a strange artist popped into my head…Paul Simon. I guess something called something off the Graceland or The Rhythm of the Saints albums…something reminded me a little of that.
It definitely resembles the Ladysmith Black Mambazo stuff on Graceland – and that’s a pretty obvious point of comparison for anything African for a western audience. I do reckon African music will become a lot more mainstream in western music in coming years.
It makes sense but for a minute I was thinking….Paul Simon? Then it hit me.
Interesting observation about the welcome cameos in RTJ4 – I often find guest spots distracting but in this case, it sounds like it would be overwhelming to not break it up a bit with some other vocalists.
I suppose that’s the case with Public Enemy – Chuck D’s relentlessness might be too much without Flavor Flav making appearances every so often!
That Burna Boy album didn’t really need all the guest spots but RTJ do, I think. Flavor Flav is a good point of reference for breaking up an overwhelmingly serious narrative.