American hip-hop may have colonised the globe, but, miraculously, unique responses have sprung up to represent their divergent cultures more honestly. What’s consistent between the varying forms is a self-definition that operates on the level of individual and community and which can indelibly associate an MC with the place they come from, whether a ‘hood of Queens or an estate in East London. But, as newspapers will tell you, rap can become preoccupied with such an exclusively local identity, even to the point where a contradiction forms. Thus a music centred around communication engenders division.
Baloji, whose name means ‘sorcerer’ in Swahili, is a man of unusual provenance. Born in the Congo but brought up in Belgium, a discordant reunion with his estranged mother inspired the rapper to record his acclaimed debut Hotel Impala. Now Baloji returns with Kinshasa Succursale, an accomplished work in collaboration with African and international musicians. The album radically departs from hip-hop’s customary palette of samples and programmed beats, favouring live instrumentation instead. The result is an organic collection of songs which mix rock with rumba, soul with soukous. Choosing to explore both the culture of his birthplace and of his country of citizenship, Baloji has built a foundation which elegantly mirrors his poetry of reconciliation.
The album opens on a note of contrast however with Le Jour D’Après / Siku Yu Baadaye (Indépendence Cha-Cha). Here a sing-song refrain and nursery rhyme guitar are the unlikely basis for Baloji’s anti-colonial polemic:
“La révolution au bout du vote, | la force du nombre est l’antidote | pour changer la dette en dotte.
(Revolution comes after the vote, | strength in numbers our antidote | to turn the debt into dowry.)
While his themes share much in common with the conscious school of American hip-hop, Baloji’s vowel-inflecting delivery nods to more club friendly MCs (certainly his “uh-oh, uh-oh”s are indebted to Jay-Z). It’s a refreshing combination of seriousness and swagger.
The highlight of the album is perhaps Karibu Ya Bintou, a jam brimming with vitality. In place of an instrumental backing is a full blown street party, a blare of street whistles, megaphones and the distorted thumb pianos of Congolese labelmates Konono No 1. Kyniwa-Kyniwa, featuring the helium voice of Bebson De La Rue and a light-hearted beatboxing backing, is an upbeat number whose charms recall Bobby Mcferrin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy. The gospel-imitating appeal to “Teach Me How To Fall In Love, Touch Me Baby, Touch Me Baby” is stupidly gorgeous.
The album closes with some extremely well chosen remixes which suggest that it was as much a labour of love for the label as the artist. Débruit, the producer behind electro-highlife banger Nigeria What?, supplies a remix of Karibu Ya Bintou which is quite as tasty as the original, and answers that nagging question of what Baloji would sound like with a programmed beat behind him and a sub. Theophilus London drops a predictably posturing verse on the come-up inducing remix of Kinshasa Succursale, a synth-laden cut which builds to a peak of shuddering intensity ostensibly ostensibly designed to advertise Dolby.
Kinshasa Succursale is bursting with ideas, not all of which hit their mark. It’s refreshing however to see an approach to recording and production which doesn’t strive for polish and perfection. This has far too much soul and individualism for that. Baloji has made a hip hop album which reflects his Pan-Africanism, the idealistic notion of a macro-community which he extends to its furthest point by including the music of the African diaspora. It follows that this is the work of a man whose understanding of home encompasses two drastically different cultures. And for the course of an hour it’s hard not to be under Baloji’s spell.