Continuing from where we left off in Part 1 of this feature, we’re counting down our 50 picks of the best Kenyan music had to offer in 2016. As has been mentioned before, the competitiveness in music circles is at an all-time high and these 50 tracks barely scratch the surface of the great content that has been produced this year. Anyway, let’s finish what we started:
25. Monitah – Utopia
On Utopia, Monitah finds perfect bliss in the intimate perks that come with being in love – the skin contact, the meeting of the eyes, the routine conversations, merely being in each other’s company, etc. In the dreamy universe Monitah conjures up, these small little things never lose their magic and never seem like they will ever be taken for granted.
24. Greggy – Dojo
Greggy is one heck of a smooth operator on this banger of a track as he tries to convince a special type of girl to come over to his dojo for some Netflix and Chill. Producer Kevin Grands is responsible for one of the best trap beats of the year. It is a super-clean and airy production, something like a freshly spruced up bachelor pad.
23. Elani – My Darling ft. Chameleone
Elani’s trademark harmonies are as strong as ever in this very danceable collaboration with Uganda’s Chameleone. The best bit of My Darling is in the vocal contrast between the sweet, silky smooth Elani and Chameleone’s raspy delivery, making the track truly sound like a passionate conversation.
22. Octopizzo – Utanisho
Octopizzo’s allure as a hip hop artist comes more from the entertainment value, as opposed to the density/structure, of his lyrics. His lines tend to be straightforward but full of cheek and self-confident swagger, with a few lyrical bombs thrown in here and there. Utanisho presents an Octopizzo operating at full capacity, taunting other rappers who claim to be technically superior but are yet to achieve his level of commercial success: “Naskia kuna ma-rapper bado wamestick kwa cypher/zangu ni kutoa soundtracks za sci-fi.” There’s lots of material to crack a smile to on this record. Listen below:
21. Don Ngatia – Tide Me Over
Don Ngatia has been cultivating his unique sound (he calls it afro-urban) from strength to strength; first with a 2013 EP titled Venus and Mars followed by three strong singles in 2015. His latest offering, Tide Me Over, switches over to gospel. Don Ngatia pens a beautifully written prayer for strength and guidance at a critical moment of adversity. Check out the lyric video if necessary.
20. Cece Sagini – Ensobosobo
It’s great to see more and more ‘new-genre’ artists writing and performing songs songs in vernacular languages; and in the process extending the cultural richness of their own communities. When it comes to the Kisii dialect, artists such as Raj have been making waves with their trap bangers. Cece Sagini goes on a different tangent with an afro-pop/house sound on Ensobosobo. Backed up by traditional artist Nyang’au, this track affirms its cultural identity beautifully, complete with some obokano strumming on top of the delectable beat produced by Jaaz Odongo.
19. Blinky Bill, Mayonde & MDQ – I’m Feelin’ It
The wobbly bassline that meanders in and out of this track instantly brings memories of a time when Ogopa DJs ran things. Blinky Bill refreshes the good old Ogopa bounce sound, adding in his own tricks using some sweet vocal samples. It gets even better with Mayonde and Muthoni the Drummer Queen joining the fray. It isn’t easy to describe just how addictive this song is. Perhaps the title does the best job here.
18. Rish – My Strength
Slowly but surely, solo rock artist Rish has been building a strong repetoire since her smash debut single The Hate Song. My Strength and two guest features on the Andromeda Music compilation album have been her only releases of 2016. The overall quality of her content has probably left her fans desparately waiting for an EP/album release date. On My Strength, Amos Kiptoon is phenomenal on the guitar, especially with that solo at the bridge. Rish songwriting shines through as well. My Strength cannot really be pigeon-holed as a gospel track but it delivers a very strong testament of faith at the most trying of times.
17. J Kali – Balance
J Kali drops some beautiful verses about the importance of balance between body and mind on a Hocus Pocus beat. This really brings back memories of a time when hip hop had a good balance between beats and lyrical content. If you’re in the right frame of mind, it can also trigger memories of Junglepussy’s similarly organic Now Or Later music video.
16. King Kaka – Gorilla
Off his It’s The King mixtape, released in the midst of yet another pissing contest among Kenyan hip hop artists, King Kaka savagely charges through his challengers in Gorilla. Complete with a Mohammed Ali clip, at least one metaphor per bar and enough namedrops to make The Game sit up and take notice, this must have gotten many a rapper shook. Listen below:
15. Gabu & Frasha – W.A.B.E ft. DJ Joe Mfalme
One of the main factors behind P.Unit’s success is their affinity for really, really good production on their tracks. Even where their lyrical content falls short, the beats that accompany a P.Unit song tend to be irresistible and at times industry-defining. Wasn’t it You Guy that opened up the floodgates to the dancehall-heavy production that everyone seems to be currently obsessed with? Gabu, Frasha and DJ Joe Mfalme’s W.A.B.E possesses quite a lot of that P.Unit DNA. Combining elements of what sounds like slowed down trance and a bit of moombahton, producers Ulopa and Man Child have created a monster of a beat. Resistance is futile with this one. Listen below:
14. Trabolee – Mutinda Muliro
Riding on a J.Cole beat and alluding to Pavelee and Kantai’s hip-hop classic about giving weak rappers a literal and lyrical beatdown, Trabolee goes full beast mode on Mutinda Muliro. As expected from a lyricst of his calibre, Trabolee comes through with an immaculate freestyle that is best descibed by the referring to the source material: “Picture one-man Ukoo Flani, two Kalimanis and four Mr. Rees.” Nicely done.
13. Abbas – Party Like A Moda ft. Victoria Kimani
Party Like A Moda essentially brings together two expert collaborators. Abbas’ entertaining lyrical delivery and Victoria Kimani’s vocal and visual presence easily make them other artists’ top contenders for guest features on the local and regional front respectively. The potential awesomeness of having both of these sets of qualities on a single track has finally been realized. As the title suggests, Party Like A Moda is a purely party-themed track packaged to automatically fit into DJ playlists and tempt listeners to take things to the extreme when they go out on the town. Even the beat is designed to sound like a (slower) distant cousin of Taio Cruz’s Dynamite. Abbas is totally in his element, delivering two dancehall-inspired verses as Victoria Kimani tops them off with a well-done chorus. The two artists’ qualities combine and work together as smoothly as a well mixed glass of Mai Tai. Listen below:
12. Tetu Shani & Mayonde – Chemistry
As the title suggests, this collaboration between Tetu Shani, Mayonde, and Jinku (on production) involves a lot of good chemistry. Tetu’s acoustic approach meets Jinku’s preference for an electronic sound. Tetu’s songwriting and composition of harmonies allows Mayonde’s vocals to shine both individually and combined with his own. The final product is undoubtedly the love song of the year. The trio has managed to capture that dreamy feeling of being helplessly lovestruck. Tetu’s decision to release the track stems have made it the most remixed Kenyan song this year, a fan favourite being this Hendrick Remix.
11. Magode & Dabliu – Heaven’s Door (Mama)
Hip hop artists Magode and Dabliu (joined occasionally by Nicole) weave a dramatic story arc in their debut album titled Mahatma Mabangi: The Untold Story. They take on the personas of two disillusioned rappers who turn to a life of crime and finally meet a grisly death at the hands of the police. Heavens Door concludes the arc with the two contemplating their lives and reaching out to their mothers from the grave. Samora GKV whips up a heart-wrenching beat for this track, ironically sampling off Mama by the Kelly Family. Call or text 0724808844 or 0713400819 to order physical or digital copies of The Untold Story.
10. Athieno – Muamuzi
Muamuzi is the final track on Athieno’s stellar deubt album (reviewed here). Even though this song has often been central feature of her live sets throughout 2015 and this year, the flexibility with which it can be performed gives it an evergreen quality. Like the songs that dominate the praise medleys performed in churches all over, Muamuzi is anchored on a one-line chorus and just four lines for the pre-chorus. The version on the album keeps things lively and upbeat with a melange of jazz, and African rhythms. It is impossible to avoid jamming to song.
9. Aaron Rimbui – Simama ft. Bien-Aimé Baraza & Kato Change
Following Aaron Rimbui’s guest feature on Live And Die in Afrika, Sauti Sol’s Bien-Aimé returns the favour on Simama, off the jazz maestro’s third album. Bien lends his vocals to Rimbui’s uplifting composition about finding strength in the face of adversity. Kato Change also comes through with his usual delivery of spellbinding guitar riffs.
8. Dave Ndegwa – Sunny Day
Dave Ndegwa’s strategy in attempting to serenade a departing lover back into his arms is to sing about the weather. That’s kind of boring, right? Wrong! It’s absolutely beautiful. Consider the poetry of his opening lyrics: “You’re the reason for the season/and I just thought that you should know/I’m sprung and I hope it shows.” He uses the word “sprung” to allude to “spring”, the colourful season that comes after the harsh chill of winter and ushers us to the warmth of summer. Even though spring represents the thoughts and sightings of his soon-to-be ex from afar which brightens his day, he ultimately declares “Please don’t go, I’m a summer lover.” If you have never experienced Dave Ndegwa’s silky smooth songwriting and seductively produced tracks, prepare to be smitten.
7. Victoria Kimani – All The Way ft. Khuli Chana
The effect of sampling on a piece of music can be profound. A carefully selected and well-executed sample can provide a relevant point of reference to something great, it brings us closer to the classics. It can also bring the ideas of artists past and present much closer and bring out the similarities between them that may be obscured by the passage of time. Victoria Kimani’s sampling of Angelique Kidjo’s Wombo Lombo in her single All The Way happens to achieve all of these awesome things. Just as Angelique Kidjo sings about an encounter with a magnificent dancer, Victoria Kimani’s All The Way shares that same sentiment of singing praise to the one element of African music that shines through irrespective of genres and languages: the dancing. While paying homage to sound and energy of the original track, All The Way transforms Wombo Lombo into a groovy R&B track delivered in Yoruba and English. Listen below:
6. Wangechi – Not
Off her recently released Don’t Consume If Seal Is Broken EP, this track presents Wangechi at her lyrical best. Definitely much older than she was when releasing her Consume mixtape, and perhaps now much more world-weary from her experiences since then, Not isn’t only about the rashness of youth but also disconnection in general. Generational disconnection and emotional disconnection at a time when the world seems to be more connected than ever before, thanks to social media and other technologies. “What we hear is not what we listen to /… what we see is not what we looking at.”
5. Nyashinski – Mungu Pekee
This year marked the return of urban music pioneers of the 2000s. At the same time, the traditional distinction between gospel and secular artist was blurred more than ever before, with secular artists producing well-received content about their own spiritual experiences. Both of these developments apply to former Kleptomaniac Nyashinski, who returned to the scene and tested the waters with a Nameless collabo. He then switched things up and dropped two critically acclaimed gospel-leaning tracks.On Mungu Pekee, Nyashinski retains the trademark Kleptomaniac flow and flair but directs his talents towards spiritual matters. Pacho’s Cedo, who seems to have laid his hand upon half of the dopest beats this year, handles the production duties on this absolute gem.
4. Tetu Shani – Jacaranda Tree
On the strength of his two first releases, Round and Round and And Ode to Pa, it isn’t hard to tell that Tetu Shani is an artist that has no problem stretching the limits of his unique and open-minded creative process. Every new song from him is some kind of blind tasting exercise for the ears – you never really know what you’re going to get. Jacaranda Tree is the latest single off his upcoming album and it’s quite the experience. It is a lovechild of the entire spectrum of 90s style R&B/Hip-hop, pop, the modern forms those genres; and some trap for good measure. It sways effortlessly from one genre and timeline to the next as Tetu sing-raps quite the heartbreaking story of love found and lost under the beauty of a jacaranda tree. Just like the #JacarandaPropaganda photo-fest of a few weeks back, the variety of the soundscape of Jacaranda Tree is splendid.
3. Sauti Sol – Kuliko Jana ft. RedFourth Chorus
This deep cut from Sauti Sol’s third album (reviewed here) suddenly got a new lease of life after an acapella version the band did with students from their alma mater Upper Hill went viral on the interwebs. Predictably, Kuliko Jana has become one of the central subjects in the current “gospel-secular overlap” debate, but the wave of social media support for this song has overridden any debate as to whether or not its lyrics are “theologically/doctrinally inaccurate”. There is always something breathtaking about acapella tunes done right and this is no exception. That this song has even got a kizomba cover is proof of just how impactful it has been.
2. Vicmass Luodollar – Bank Otuch
Although Vicmass Luodollar triumphantly declares: “I feel like Tupac!” on his first major hit after nearly a decade of trying to make his mark on the music industry, his flow and delivery is closer to that of a Notorious B.I.G who has just discovered his Luo ancestry. Luodollar’s braggadocio on Bank Otuch ascends to Poxi Presha levels. He taps into the single state of mind that the majority of Kenyans are trying to achieve: the state of excitement (and recklessness) that comes with finally abandoning the struggles of the low/middle class and joining the club of the fabulously wealthy. Effortlessly switching between Luo, Swahili and English in the verses, Bank Otuch transcends the language barrier in pretty much the same way as Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s Atoti. When this song was released in November 2015, it barely registered in media and blogger circles (except for our friends at The Bar 254). It took the intervention of fellow Kibera born-and-bred artist Octopizzo for the tune to finally blow up sometime in April 2016. It has been onwards and upwards for Vicmass ever since. The original version still holds a certain charm that the (more popular) remix featuring Octopizzo cannot fully replicate. Listen below:
1. kwame – kq431
2016 has been a terrible year for Kenya in many ways, dominated by uncertainty, fear and loss; and not just from the macro-view as a nation. The year has also taken a personal toll on so many individuals – loss of livelihoods, loss of property, questionable detention in foreign prisons, a general sense of stagnation, etc. Worst of all, many have lost loved ones through senseless tragedies that are difficult to process.
In kq431, Kenyan-Ghanaian singer-songwriter and producer kwame (not to be confused with Kwame Rigii) explores this subject through a context of one who lost a father in the tragic Kenya Airways Flight 431 plane crash in 2000. The first three minutes of kwame’s silent piano-playing sets up the mood and allows us to get lost in thought with him. Decades down the line, departed loved ones tend to occupy our minds still. Following a brief contemplation of why such a tragedy would happen, a reply comes in the form of a beautiful clip of what is presumably kwame’s father coincidentally borrowing words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to proclaim his resolve to carry on his purpose in life and maintain his faith no matter the uncertainties that lie ahead.
There is a very strong temptation to liken this song to Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam (or vice versa, if we consider release dates). kq431 is a humbler Ultralight Beam, not seeking the overwhelming presence of an all-powerful God, but instead reaching out to re-connect with departed loved ones and enjoying their familiar warmth.
Once again, kwame demonstrates his ability to create mind-blowing soundscapes which creates all sorts of complex moods, and convey strong emotion in his productions even without having to express them vocally. This right here is the essence of music. If you have not experienced kwame’s hey, mr. dreamer EP from 2015, especially one foot forward, rush over to his Bandcamp or SoundCloud pages ASAP!