Hiphop can improve and address the many issues painfully dripping out of the South African womb, writes Innocent Madzhoni.
Musical silences befall us from one of the most ambitious rappers in South Africa, A-Reece, when he took much time without releasing any singles or projects. Such hiatus, often hated by the fans, I believe, is necessary for an artist in order for them to regroup and clearly think about the next creation they want to produce for the world. Personally, I passionately waited for A-Reece to work his magic and deliver us an exclusive work of rap.
The rapper suspended the void when he released a project, artistically called, Today’s Tragedy, Tomorrow’s Memory: the mixtape. I got chills merely from the title, what can I say man, I love words, beautifully interwoven words. My goosebumps intensified when I saw the mixtape cover; at that point, the arts were profusely communicating. What was left was for me to dive into the direct content – A-Reece’s prolific abilities in the raps. My ears itched for the 13-track mixtape.
Alas! I was disappointed. (I also feel like the title and mixtape cover were manipulative and misleading!)
Okay, I listened back and forth. In the songs’ natural order and I also shuffled them. I had multiple listens, with each listen I hoped that the mixtape’s ‘contents’ would get better, but it was stagnant. I have had cases where certain albums get better with several listens; hence I don’t judge an artist’s work prematurely, out of immature decisions and excitement.
The work opens with a song named, Mark 15:35, obviously a Bible verse – A-Reece proclaiming along the song that one of his friends, I would love to believe, tells him he should read the Bible more. Even before the album came out, as the rapper’s twitters suggested, The Matrix was to be a central theme in his upcoming project – a pop culture reference I presume. The Matrix, at the most basic, speaks to the people being trapped in this world’s illusion, which can primarily be meant to deceive them. And where would religion be in the matrix? But A-Reece obviously isn’t concerned, he is throwing concepts around. If anything, A-Reece himself is seemly trapped in a world of tirelessly repeating himself.
I won’t be reviewing the album, well at least not in a technical manner, and I won’t review each song – I will merely show if A-Reece should be excused or not.
In Re$idual $elf-Image (9th song), featuring Ayanda Jiya, A-Reece raps, ‘how many lives can this record save?’ He continues, ‘how many minds can it liberate?’ Well, A-reece, like J Cole when he proclaimed repeatedly in 2014 Forest Hill Drive that he is this generation’s GOAT instead of showing us through the raps in the songs, raps the previous pieces with much confidence. But in the end, and like J Cole, fails to deliver on his utterances.
For the most part of this mixtape, A-Reece, and this is in essence throughout the whole project, cycles around the cats that are after his spot in the hip hop scene. (I kept thinking that maybe A-Reece should listen to Mos Def’s (that rapper who is banned from coming to South Africa) verse when he visited the Chappelle’s Show for the second time along with Talib Kweli – where he rapped, ‘beef is not what Jay said to Nas, beef is when working niggas can’t find a job. . . beef is when a gangster ain’t doing it right, and other gangsters then decide what to do with his life. . . when a soldier ends his life with his own gun, beef is trying to figure out what to tell his son. . .beef is real life happening every day and it is realer than ‘em songs you gave to Kayslay.’)
A-Reece irritatingly and repeatedly announces that he’s in top form and no one can oust him out of his throne. It’s either A-Reece has no content to carry his projects he claims can liberate us or he is totally insecure about his position in the South African rap game. However, in No Man’s Land, he sings, ‘here I was thinking beefing with these rappers is a serious problem, niggas in the hood got bigger problems.’ Yet he still doesn’t deal with problems of the hood. From Mark 15:35, Hibachi, The 5 Year Plan, Jimmy’s Interlude, Residual Self-Image, Bravo, Over Me, and ultimately to Dotted lines. In eight songs, out of thirteen songs, it’s either A-Reece is telling cats where to get off or he’s telling them how he’s one of the greatest in SA currently.
Perhaps he’s only failing to liberate me, but how does this constant theme liberate?(And I might not be a firm listener of South African hip hop of late, but I would know if A-Reece was seriously beefing with other rappers, at least those who are reputable. If he is not. . . then why such a persistence in talking about nameless rappers who are claiming his throne or nameless people ‘slandering’ his name?)
Exactly where does such a veracious rapper get it wrong? My biggest guess, A-Reece doesn’t conceptualize his projects. If I took the liberty to also analyse the previous work he has released, you will find that he runs around the topics (themes) and talks about the same things. My second guess, he writes songs in a scattered manner without any coherent link, more like, ‘I am feeling the urge, let me rap now.’ For instance, (i) he raps about losing people through death in Mark 15:35 and he again comes through in Jimmy’s Interlude talking about the same thing again. (ii) Sometimes he doesn’t rap, only delivering the chorus, or partly rapping at the end of the song when a beat switches – i.e., he has moments of not knowing what to say in raps, instead he gives the hook. (iii) He switches themes in songs, and he doesn’t do it in a good way. It’s as if he forgot what he was talking about from the beginning.
Furthermore, I will give one example of A-Reece’s repetition in themes. (I can guarantee you that if you listen closely A-Reece has always lacked that precise conceptualization for some time now.) In No man’s Land, he raps about a young man caught in a 9 to 5 job, and unable to get out because he got kids that have to eat and go to school too, on the other side, he has a partner who is high maintenance. In 2018, on A Real Nigga Tale, he raps, ‘I’d rather pick up a cheque and loop, then go out and pick up a kid at school. No disrespect to the niggas who do, that’s where your life took you my nigga, it’s cool.’ I can do this comparison from his previous projects to the recent projects the whole day.
Only three songs tried to squeeze themselves out of the mixtape as works seeking to liberate, at least to me. The Same thing (4th song) addresses life’s unpredictability; how what one person faces, other people will also inevitable face. How our pains in the world are not foreign, but they are connected like God and Satan. Disappointedly, A-Reece doesn’t deliver a verse on this one. And this is where he could’ve supplied a profound verse, eschewing his ‘I am the greatest/you niggas ain’t…’ attributes. Jay Jody, the featured rapper, seems not to address anything related to ‘the same thing – primarily being the harsh realities of blackness – happening to the young people of this god-forsaken country.
The second and third songs are Dichotomy and No Man’s land, respectively. In a straightforward manner, with little effort in the storytelling (and the plot twists thereof), but with fair effort in his flow and rhymes, A-Reece talks about a relationship facing troubles that lead to a divorce, child custody, sourness between the partners, and depression in Dichotomy. If such a simple song stands out as a work that can liberate, this informs you about the overall standard of the project. And No Man’s Land, with Wordz, in the first round, deals with what I put a spotlight on somewhere above here; people trapped in the 9 to 5 jobs. Secondly, it deals with gun violence. Ah man, Wordz without a doubt out-rapped A-Reece on this one, ‘yeah, now it’s black to black slaughter. And back to back trauma, the streets is out of order. . .’
Out of the features that emanated from this project, Wordz came through for me. However Stogie T came even too strongly, in a very nuanced (and I think that’s what this project lacked) and complex verse on Bravo. The complexity isn’t in addressing anything specific, but in its word play, double entendre, multiple-laid meanings between the lines, and imagery. Basically, he talks about the American movie No Country for Old Men (it’s about a man who stumbles on a large amount of cash and a psychopathic man who chases him), directed by brothers Ethan and Joel. He involves some scenes from the movie, like the iconic scene involving the old man at the petrol station and coin tossing.
A-Reece is a great rapper, even here on this project it radiates on songs like Hibachi – with his word alignment impeccable, or a song like Residual Self-Image where he uses alliteration using consonants b and p on his verse before the song closes. BUT! He says, ‘they say nothing last forever, but these records probably do,’ in Jimmy’s Interlude. Do I think such a record will last forever? Not quite. This project lacks the typical A-Reece’s vibe-filled hooks that can cover up when the verses are tight, which has become the case of late. He barely raps. If he does rap, he lets off after a few seconds. What happened to the Couldn’t A-Reece, who could deliver three insane verses, filled with storytelling and word play and gut-wrenching lyrics? Because without a doubt, he is capable of producing something that can last forever, but he needs to focus, and start creating with some sense of direction and meaning.
I laugh when people try their luck at puns, ‘If you have level 3 in English, listen to Reece Madlala, and we’ll stick to A-Reece with our level 7s.’ Meanwhile Reece Madlala and his gang have been able to fathom the township situation, and they articulate it with so much power in their songs. They peruse our hopes and dreams, our shortcomings and desperation in their songs… something which I can boldly say A-Reece has not succeeded at. Respect Amapiano! This has been the curse of South African music, there’s a generalisation of music genres. House, Kwaito, Gqom and Amapiano are often easily dismissed as music that doesn’t carry meaning. That’s a lie, in these genres there are artists who will honestly reflect the society. And there are those who will fail. Even in the hip hop scene, there are those who will reflect society. And A-Reece, as far as his musical discography stretches back, hasn’t reflected society at all – so much so to claim he can liberate our minds.
And as such, should A-Reece be excused? (or in a broader sense, looking at A-Reece as a metaphor, should South African hip hop be excused?) I don’t think so. He can absolutely improve and actually liberate us. Some of us love and appreciate hip hop, we would appreciate it, too, if A-Reece improved, and addressed the many issues that are painfully dripping out of the South African womb.
(Talking about musical hiatuses, where’s Kendrick Lamar?)****