Congolese rapper merges styles to compelling effect on this innovative collection.
Martin Longley 2011
Baloji is a Congolese rapper who has lived most of his life in the French-speaking Wallonian part of Belgium. In Swahili, his name means ‘sorcerer’. Such arcane practices were doubtless crucial to the construction of this remarkably multi-layered album. It began as an extension of Baloji’s 2008 disc Hotel Impala, but swiftly metamorphosed into a fresh wave of writing and re-interpretation. Intent on an advanced form of field recording, Baloji returned to his homeland, in search of musical understanding and communal improvisation.
The album opens with a fairly traditional Congolese-styled number, including gospel-like exchanges, singing guitar figures and sweet-voiced old-school melodicism. A rap element is gently introduced towards the end, and by the second song, Baloji’s rhymes have already increased in their density, buoyed by acoustic guitars, a female chorus and a ragged, street-style horn section. Already, the album’s sounding like it’s awash with a bubbling pot of unlikely elements, but only if the listener is too studious, too concerned with the separation of styles. It’s desirable to just let the amalgamated forms flow past, unworried about the categories at large, and the lineage involved.
An electrifying production harnesses the flashpoint of inspiration. Karibu Ya Bintou features the Konono No. 1, rending the soundscape with their distinctive distortion sculptures. There are further musical detours ahead, with several songs dipping into surprising depths: full-blown Congolese soukous, reggae, 1970s rock-soul and even doo-wop gospel rear their respective heads. At no time is the musical foundation particularly derived from mainline hip hop, but this doesn’t prevent Baloji from delivering his adept and agile lines in sympathetic fashion. The most surprising team-up is delayed until late in the album, with Detroit retro-funk-soul singer Amp Fiddler working through the two-part Nazongi Ndako alongside the veteran Congolese soukous combo Zaïko Langa Langa. Baloji is interested in an involved fusion that is at once nostalgic and innovative, quickly establishing its own musical identity.
There’s also a high class of bonus tracks, with three remixes that feature guest rapping appearances from the Brooklyn-transplanted Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador and actual native Brooklynite Theophilus London.