As frontman for the groups Sweat.X and Playdoe, Johannesburg-based MC / producer Spoek Mathambo (real name Nthato James Monde Mokgata) easily represents one of the more high-profile members of the much-touted new wave of South African artists, and this debut solo album ‘Mshini Wam’ follows recent collaborations with Jose Orecchia. There’s also a distinctly political edge to the title as well – a paraphrasing of a famous South African song with lyrics in Zulu called “Umshini Wami” (“My Machine” in English) popular amongst members of the military wing of the ANC – a reference to â€œbring me my machine gun.â€ In this case, Mathambo wants to give it a new connotation, with”Mshini Wam” apparently meaning “My Machine… a way to express a new wave of electronic African music”. There’s a certainly a discernibly post-MIA feel to a lot of the material here (hey, it’s difficult to hear rhythmic machine gun samples being deployed on ‘Mshini Wam Pt. 2’ without flashing back to ‘Paper Planes’), with more straight-ahead electro-house dance excursions being balanced out with dancehall-tinged broken beats and contemporary hiphop influences.
Opening track ‘Gwababa (Don’t Be Scared)’ kicks things straight off into throbbing house territory, with dark buzzing synths gathering momentum around rumbling tribal beats as Ayuvile Tosa and Yolanda Fyrus Xashi’s backing vocals rush to catch up with Mathambo’s deep, purring basso vocals, shortly before ‘Mshini Wam’ offers up a boisterous collision of Bug-style dancehall snares and bright buzzing synths as both female vocalists target their lyrical flow at gun-toting South African gangsters in a standout highlight momentum that sits somewhere between Warrior Queen and something off MIA’s ‘Kala’. Elsewhere, the silky smooth ‘Let Them Talk’ sees tightly programmed soca rhythms rattling beneath Mathambo’s multilingual rhymes in an offering that nicely counterpoints its polished pop leanings with a more gritty rhythmic undercurrent, before the juddering ‘Gunboat’s locks broken garage-house rhythms beneath synth-brass stabs and a wall of juddering sub-bass in what’s perhaps the most crossover-poised moments here, the mix of treacherous rhythms and smooth pop-urban vocals at points calling to mind some meeting point between Switch and NERD. There’s also a dark tech-house centred cover of Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’ that against all odds works surprisingly well in a vaguely Weatherall-esque way, before ‘War On Words’ offers up a flirtation with stripped back dubstep rhythms and wobbling sub-bass that sees the darker electronic elements being adeptly counterbalanced by Mathambo’s deceptively smooth soul vocals, which on closer inspection thinly mask some of the most bitter, end of relationship centred lyrics here – indeed, the sense of gathering weariness as the track reaches its end works perfectly. While the occasional sense creeps in that Mathambo’s spreading himself a bit thin by trying to cover too many stylistic bases here, for the most part ‘Mshini Wam’ offers up an impressive solo debut.