As a music journalist specialising in hip-hop, I’ll often receive emails from artists requesting me to review a slap-dash, incoherent and cobbled-together release brazenly masquerading as a flagship LP or album. More often than not, they’ll altogether lack the necessary refinement, finesse and attention to detail for me to take them at all seriously; hence why I generally don’t give them the time of day. Occasionally however, I am fortunate enough to happen upon something that shows a certain staid professionalism of which I am genuinely in awe. Just over a week ago Rob One gifted me his latest album complete with a comprehensive description of his history as an artist, his project’s overarching themes and even annotated diagrams showing the album’s cover art design process . It displayed a distinct pride in his work that is rare among artists of any genre these days. Indeed this earnestness extends to the album’s content: African by Rob One is a diligently crafted rap album and the fruit of two years labour fuelled almost solely by Rob’s own unrequited love for the art of hip-hop.
For those that don’t know, Rob One AKA Rob Boffard is a hip-hop journalist who has written for The Guardian, NME, Wired Magazine and The Jewish Chronicle among others. He’s also a South African expat living in Britain — and with no small measure of aplomb does he assert his enduring pride for his roots in the continent in which he was born and came of age. Indeed, African is a really unique project in the sense that it tells a story that hasn’t been told before – at least through the medium of rap. Suitably the album showcases some of Africa’s best hip-hop talent including celebrated Jo’burg beatmaker Nyambz (widely hailed as Africa’s greatest hip-hop producer), emcee and self-proclaimed “verbal stenographer” Core Wreckah from the small, landlocked nation of Lesotho, female songstress Deney Van Rooyen and one of Africa’s most prolific hip-hop artists and indubitable veteran of hip-hop’s Golden Age, Zubz. The album’s themes are as a varied as its pool of talent: stories of love are played off against vivid descriptions of Africa in the midst of post-apocalyptic anarchy, fictional first-person tales of mettlesome espionage heroes, warm tributes to his family and loved ones and of course, homage aplenty to the art of hip-hop itself.
The feel-good anthemic ‘African’ is the album’s stand-out track with such a catchy hook that it will impel Africans and non-Africans alike to chant along fervently. Laced thickly with references to the homeland such as the Spingboks on tour, the ‘94 World Cup, the cavernous Ellis Park sports arena in Jo’burg, the state of Gauteng and the beating drum of the continent, it’s a thickly-laden assertion of national pride and has some of the album’s best quotables: “I don’t make black noise but I do make a ruckus”. The subject of Rob’s African identity is especially laid bare and explored in greater depth in ‘Broken Language’ which is a charming narrative about a white South African who – despite admitting he sucks – perseveres to learn isiZulu (the native tongue of is black South African compatriots). And he even flexes his multilingualism by kicking a rhyme or two in French for good measure. The instrumental on this one is also one of the simplest yet most effective on the album, providing a perfect fit for Rob’s lyrics which display an effortless ability to storytell. The Premo-esque loop courtesy of ProChrist features some nice cuts from The Last Skeptik and shows Rob’s highly-developed ear for production that has no doubt been cultivated by years of experience as sound-engineer (yes, he’s a pretty versatile guy). A work overseen and, for the most part, mixed and arranged by Rob himself, African is seamless and polished affair that occasionally suffers from overly synth-driven, bland and sterile production. The synthetic heaviness of some tracks could do with greater contrast to those that are less effects-driven and rely more on simpler looped instrumentals. Still, while it could be argued the production is imperfect, Rob’s lyricism and emceeing ability are hard to fault. His lyrics are richly varied with abstract poetic strands underpinning his deft storytelling and spun by confident cadences and on-point flows shot through with bursts of meaty wordplay sure to please the old-school heads: “Going back in time was news to me”.
Affixing his rhymes within a myriad of scenarios, Rob allows his listeners to be full immersed in and intrigued by his content throughout the album’s 13 tracks and will leave those highly attuned to good hip-hop no doubt entertained to the hilt. The album’s chief merit lies in its attention to detail and this is a highly accomplished effort from a self-confessed “skinny white South African Jew” who, as both an emcee and lyricist (not that the two are—or should be – separable) conveys the ability of a sharp wordsmith while lauding a humility and a measured sensibility that proves that you don’t have to emote into oblivion in a bid to sound real. It is an album that also shows a relentless ambition to produce something to the best of one’s ability; indeed African epitomises Rob’s commitment to hip-hop and proves that as well as being a dope commentator, he is an equally worthy contributor to the art form as well.
Purchase African from Rob One’s Bandcamp page at http://www.robone.bandcamp.com
Also, don’t forget to check out his weekly hip-hop podcast at http://www.2020.mypodcast.com