2018 was a great year for Kenyan music – in all ways. I usually review my Top 10 Albums from Africa at the end or start of every year but because there were so many dope Kenyan releases, this year I am reviewing my top 10 Kenyan albums in no particular order.
1. Testimony 1990 – Khaligraph
Kenyan rapper with a flow so fast akin to Twista’s: Khaligraph dropped his anticipated debut album: Testimony 1990 on his birthday, 13th June 2018. The album is truly a testimony of the road traveled—from a struggling Kayole rapper to becoming one of Africa’s most sought after already. From Sagini’s magical singing and the church choir vocals at the end, to how the song is very different and poignant, bordering gospel— “Testimony” is one of my favourite album songs. RIP Sagini. My replay tracks of the album include: “G Like That”, “No Change” featuring Kenyan femcee Fena; with a beat is sick and lyrical flow so deep here Khali delves into some of past disappointments like being denied a USA Visa. In terms of the storyline and arrangement, “Instagram Girls” is a really cool track. Love how melodious the chorus is. Out of the 17 tracks, Khaligraph’s album features 10 collaborations. Interesting and ballsy strategy that the album did not include the hit songs we knew him for before like “Mazishi”, “Omollo” and “Nataka Iyo Doh” which played a big part in cementing his status as East African rap King. With the album Testimony 1990, Khaligraph is targeting a wider audience and reintroducing himself to us all.
2. Everyone Is Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales – Blinky Bill
I had been waiting all my life on Blinky Bill’s official debut album “Everyone Is Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales” and when it dropped, it sounded greater than I had anticipated. Now I totally understand why Blinky’s 2016 Project: “We Cut Keys While You Wait” was an EP while many of us pretended it was an album. With the new Fly album, Blinky’s Tales finally comes into one in the sense that the album showcases all three sides of his artistry: from his flair for eclectic sounds, deep voice to the production skills. Look out for my album favourites: “Atenshan”, “Oh Wah” featuring Petit Noir & Nneka and “Mungu Halali” (God’s not sleeping on us) featuring sage, Sarah Mitaru, Wambura Mitaru & Lisa Oduor Noah—my favourite track of the album. I can only equate the latter’s message and genius to Kanye West’s “All of the Lights”. It still baffles me how one can have all those stars on one track and not even sound crowded. Blinky is indeed one of the most unique artists, producers and singers we’ve got in Kenya and couldn’t be happier that his latest album flaunts this, to the world!
3. SHE – Muthoni
Muthoni the Drummer Queen is undoubtedly one of Kenya’s most experimental and versatile artists. March of 2018 saw the singer, rapper and drummer drop her third album. SHE, a dedication to all the smart, hardworking and beautiful African women out there, is a collaborative project produced and recorded in Switzerland by Swiss producers and DQ’s collaborators: Greg “GR” Escoffey and Jean “Hook” Geissbuhler. “Squad up” is a defiant anthem. From its retro-futuristic R&B / hip-hop background, to the lyrics – “Mimi ni Mnoma” – and DQ’s rap delivery, “Elevate” is my most outstanding album track. The powerful 12-track album highlights stories and experiences of different women who inspired DQ and of course: the album title. But SHE is more than that. A banger like “Kenyan Message” is a socio-politically charged hip-hop track, addressing political injustice in Kenya, among other issues affecting the layman. I also love how the music video perfectly represents its core message. The production of “Million Voice” is out of the world. SHE is an extremely well thought out album—smart, heartfelt, timeless and so well written.
5. Next Year – Octopizzo
Next Year is Octopizzo’s fourth studio album, released April of 2018, marking Octopizzo’s celebration of 10 years in music business. Its tone, somber yet wavy and mature, reflects on the growth curve and lessons Octo has garnered over the years, making the album a kind of homecoming for him. What sets Octopizzo aside from other rappers is his passion to make the hood a better place and inspire his listeners to be better people and rise. Heavily conscious Next Year attests to this. It’s a product of his inspirations, since his childhood days in Kibera, to traveling around the globe in the past several months. The old man in “Intro” and first song of the album “We Can” is juxtaposition for how the album sets us back to Octopizzo’s roots. Majority of the album tracks like “Wavy”, Jazzy, “Monopoly” and “BITD” are timeless and perfect for just about setting any mood right. Tracks like “Young Puffy”, “Noma Ni” where he parodies Khaligraph, and “Make Peace” are classic hip hop tunes and a show off for why self-proclaimed Kibera’s finest is still is the punny king of punch lines. With Next Year, Octopizzo is going back to the basics to produce his most versatile album yet. All its 17 tracks have outstanding mood and rhymes.
5. Eastlando Royalty – King Kaka
The most prolific Kenyan rapper released his fifth album Eastlando Royalty December of 2018. We already know that King Kaka loves collabos but in the new album he’s pushing the envelope, marshaling big names from across the globe. The 22-track album with 15 collaborations includes three major features: “One and Only” with top Jamaican singer Romain Virgo, Regula with legendary American hip-hop artist Talib Kweli and the title track “Royalty” featuring the celebrated American actor and comedian Tracy Morgan. Others notable features include Butera Knowless (Rwanda) in “Urumutima Wanjye” and Steph Kapela in “Blessings”. My album favourites are “Mr Nice” because of it’s transitioning beats, “Njia” featuring Bridget Blue, it’s got an interesting monologue with King Kaka talking to God, “Soma Lebo” featuring Musyoka’s artist Brian Nadra and “Dundain” with Kristoff and Magix Enga—the latest biggest Kenyan banger, that has hit the streets and clubs hard. Even though he’s not going by his previous monikers (like Rabbit) any more—the album still has a little bit of every single personality that his brand embodies. In a song like “Dodoma” featuring Hart The Band, you can hear the Swahili Shakespear. I applaud King Kaka for rebrand and growth over the years.
6. Matriarch – Wanja Wohoro
Tell me what’s not to love about Wanja and her music? I first discovered her at Dala Vol 1 – thank you Junior for that wonderful event. Wanja is passionate about her music that nothing was going to stop her from producing her debut album so she embarked on a crowdfunding effort, which was successful. Prior to the album release, she revealed, “It has been a difficult and emotional journey, but an incredibly rewarding one as I was given the opportunity to involve my entire community in this passion project. I have been overwhelmed by the love and generosity shown and I do not know where to begin thanking those who have supported me. All I can do now is pour all my energy and passion into making this album something my community and my family can be proud of.” Well, I am super proud of the outcome and honestly all the album songs are my favourites. If I really had to pick a couple will go with “Mumbi” and the Lianne La Havas—esque: “You” and “Youth”, both so rich from Wanja’s soulful voice to Kato’s distinct, melodic and rhythmic guitar riffs in the latter. The title track “Matriarch” is an ode to all the women and female empowerment. This is by far the most soulful Kenyan album I’ve heard in a long time.
7. Decimator Vol One – Decimal Records
Musyoka—the legendary Kenyan music producer teamed up with Bon’eye of P-Unit to relaunch Decimal Records, signing brand new Kenyan acts, including Khuhani, Jack Rooster, Brian Nadra and Konkodi. In their label’s first joint album they rally Kenyan stars like Avril, Naiboi and Yvonne Darc, while at the same time bringing a reunion of P-Unit and Nannoma—both legendary music groups in the urban Kenyan hip hop scene. It’s the label’s new cats killing it in the 15-track album—it’s hard to explain how raw and special their talent is. Brian Nadra has that good yet bad boy stance and love that drives girls crazy. He’s the soul of the album, bringing out the R&B and Reggae in tracks like “Man Self”. Konkodi is a mix of hood and cool, repping Nairobi’s urban sheng’ sound. Can you imagine Jack Rooster singing? “Funky for me” is a truly funky and old school sounding track – I love it! My favourite album tracks in the album in order of bravado are “Bonge”, “On It” and “Bolingo” P-Unit and Yvonne Darcq, which is a cousin to “Mobimba” with Alicios. Tracks like the melodious “Ayayai”, “Drinx na Mayenx” and the catchy Reggae jam—“Bad Boy” by Bon’eye and Avril, are a reminder of how dope a music producer Musyoka is. As many grapple with, ‘What’s the Kenyan sound?’ I feel the sound of such an album is perfect show for what’s authentically Kenyan.
8. Project Purple EP – Mayonde
Project Purple follows Mayonde 2015 debut; Magic In The Air. As much as Mayonde is a soulful singer, don’t expect her to be turning down the heat in Project Purple—in her own words; an ode to the most beloved era of Kenyan pop music. She keeps it sultry and up beat, with certified bangers like “Kwisha” and “Chini Kwa Chini” embodying the 2000’s era of Kenyan music, through and through from the beat to the flow. It almost sounds like a far model of what Ogopa DJs would be producing this decade. Mayonde’s collaborators include Stonee Jiwe and Proff with “Milele, a sultry and fun dancehall jam with the “Sexual Healing” groove. From naming hoods like Buru Buru, Lang’ata, Kibera etc to describing how much pride we have for our street culture like mats and shen’g –“Nairobi” is the best anthem anyone would pen for my city. With this EP Mayonde is paying homage to her Kenyan idols. She says, “Whether it was the Hip Hop of Kalamashaka, Ukoo Fulani and K-South or the Kapuka of Ogopa DJs, one thing was certain, Kenyans loved it. I don’t know what changed, when it came to Kenyans loving Kenyan music but I wanted to go back in time and revisit those sounds,” adding, “After working on lots of pop music on Coke Studio Africa, I wanted to experiment with the music that I figured was the closest thing to a Kenyan sound.”
9. Serve Chilled – Ciano Maimba
Blending smooth falsetto with jazz influences, Kenyan singer Ciano’s style is defined by heartfelt lyricism with his intricate finger-style guitar technique. I discovered Ciano at Jamhuri Events and at Dala Vol 1. His debut album released in collaboration with producer M-cubed is “a series of introspective recollections of the journey of human being, told in rhythmical, lyrical and melodic poetry.” My best of the album is the cha cha cha and jazzy “Earned It”, with lyrics that testified to Ciano’s stand and belief in the power of karma. All of Ciano’s 6 tracks are replay material. He says that the album is like “a journey we are all a part of”. Well, the music is so good it makes me recall the journey I’ve taken and what makes me feel good. His short bio says, “My music embodies human experience and propagates universal understanding. I stand for equality, universal love, peace and harmony.” Ciano is a really cool, sweet and down to earth person and I really adore his music, which I can only describe as John Mayer meets Hiatus Kaiyote.
10. Dreams in Stereo – Eric Wainaina
When I think of artists representing Kenyan on a global scale, I can’t miss to think of Eric Wainaina—one of Kenya’s best. “Hold Me Down” can tell you what type of writer Eric is. If I didn’t know it was Eric in the song, I would think this is Sam Smith. His hit songs like “Daima” and “Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo” are still Kenyan anthems, depending on whether we are protesting or feeling patriotic. His latest album “Dreams in Stereo” released July of 2018, almost six years after Love & Protest, features several Kenyan acts like Kagwe Muigai, Blinky Bill, Kendi Nkonge, as well as veteran, John Nzenze, of “Angelike” and “Habari za Nairobi” olden hits. Dreams In Stereo is a stellar studio production with Eric working on the album with a cross section of Kenya’s best session artists like Aaron Rimbui, Allan Wanjohi, Marvin Maveke and Benjamin Kabaseke Masinde. I suppose Eric’s New York engineer had a hand in it too. Eric has been through a lot (workwise and family related) over the past couple of years and I honestly feel like this new album is the best thing he could have done for himself and his fans. It’s an embodiment of various themes and stories that are close to him while at the same time, a show of the creative evolution he’s undergone.
BONUS: Others album reviews from across the continent coming later. Check out my past album reviews below: