2019 was a wonderful year for Kenyan music, judging by the flow of fantastic quality records and music compilations. I have always been a believer in our industry’s ability and this type of dope and versatile content really fuels me. I created two playlists with more than 23 albums ( more than those reviewed here but) – all Kenyan music produced in 2019.
I couldn’t review or mention all Kenyan compilations from 2019 but shouts to Bey T (Concept: Vol 1), Wakadinali (Ndani Ya Cockpit 2), Kesi (Kaa La Moto), Hotbox Music (Alcabagdad), Mvroe (Gvrls) and DJ Tin Tin & Dillie (Ibada). The numbering and list comes in no order of priority. It’s gonna be long so grab your earphones and let’s dive in!
1. Afrikan Sauce — Sauti Sol
Sauti Sol marshals their powerful friends in music in Afrikan Sauce—the biggest Pan African music project made from Africa in the past decade, period. Nyashinki (Kenyan legendary artist who can rap and sing) features in “Short ‘n’ Sweet” (that created a Kenyan viral dance and the rise of Aggie The Dance Queen) and the politically charged “Tujiangalie”. We will always remember the late Ugandan music producer Danz Ku Mapeesa for delivering this banger “Mbozi Za Malwa” feat. Ugandan Reggae-ragga king Bebe Cool. “Melanin” showcases Sauti Sol’s authentic Afro-pop perfectly fused in R&B and Patoranking’s Dancehall magic, giving off the best of both worlds. While my album favourite “Love Again”, feat. Angolan Kizomba king C4 Pedro is a panty-dropper, it’s also a great R&B composition; from the vocal arrangement, lyrics, harmonies to the guitar riffs—Fancyfingers I see you! Both Sauti Sol and C4 are such great composers, vocalists and songwriters, and with this type of chemistry we can only petition for their collabo album or EP. From might, experience and skill, Afrikan Sauce album compilation flaunts Sauti Sol’s maturity and growth in many ways. They have taken the soul, style and attitude of their past albums to influence Afrikan Sauce collaborations, drawn from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. For instance the acoustic-style “Afrikan Star” feat. Afrobeat king Burna Boy is reminiscent of “Subira” from Sauti Sol’s first album Mwanzo. “Rewind” feat. Kenyan rap god Khaligraph makes me emotional, remembering all the highs and lows we have all had working towards building the brand Sauti Sol. I wished for a music video for “Love on the Dance Floor” feat. Toofan, legendary Togolese francophone duo, shot in the streets of Togo. Can this still be done? From “Africa” with Yemi Alade, “Tulale Fofofo” with Mi Casa, “Girl Next Door” feat. Tiwa Savage to Kamasutra feat. Vanessa Mdee—all songs off the 13-track album are replay material.
2. Unleashed — Fena Gitu
Fena’s music style is a blend of Rap and Soul. The drop of her second album Unleashed coincided with the celebration of her marking 10 years in the industry. Songs likes “Doing Her Thing Tho” and “Empress” touch on women empowerment. Other album themes include love, freedom and ambition. Fena collaborates with top Kenyan music producers including Kanyeria, Mutoriah, Dillie and Magix Enga to showcase the transformation of her persona and sound in the album. I divided the album into three parts. Songs like “Monday Blues”, “Siri”, “Karibia” and “Unleashed” are my best because they take me back to who the real Fena is—an expressive storyteller and a damn great soulful singer. “Chai Moto” and “Ndigithia” express the go-getter and unapologetic femcee; a cool lot and perfect adds for your Playlist. “Zing Zong” and “Doing Her Thing Tho” (Extended Play) both produced by iLogos Music, are sexy and dope party starters, joining hit singles like “Steam”, “Sijaskia Vibaya”, “Sema Ng’we” and “Kaende”. Fena has come of age and not afraid to flaunt her emancipation through this 15-track album.
3. Tales of America – J.S Ondara
We were all so busy focused on Burna Boy’s Grammy nomination, banking on his win for Africa that we didn’t even realize that 28-year-old Kenyan singer J.S Ondara was also nominated at the 2020 Grammy Awards for his debut album Tales of America in the category of Best Americana Album. What a befitting category for such a titled album, and the fact that Ondara moved to the US to pursue a career in music, after winning a green card lottery in 2013. Ondara chose to carry his signature fedora and live in Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s home state, after being influenced by the American “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” singer who is a major figure in popular culture and celebrated for his contribution in the genre of Folk, Blues and Country music. Only 11 tracks out of more than 100 songs Ondara had penned for Tales of America made it into the album. This and his strategic relocation, tell me that he’s not only smart but also a masterful songwriter. The album tells the stories of an immigrant’s life in America, particularly in songs like “Master O’Connor”, “American Dream” and “God Bless America”. Songs like “Torch Song”, “Good Question”, “Saying Goodbye”, “Give Me A Moment” and “Lebanon” sure tell that Ondara is an old soul. Whether a love song or not, they are all classics and poetic Folk tunes, written in Country music-style. Think Skeeter Davis. My best album song is “God Bless America”—a poignant letter, detailing a constant struggle between home (Kenya) and home away from home (America). I also love the sweet spot in Ondara’s voice when he hits the high notes; cracking like he’s 18 once again and breaking his voice.
4. Colours of Love — Elani
Colours of Love follows Elani’s successful 2014 debut album Barua Ya Dunia. If you’re not into love songs then Colours of Love isn’t really your album. I am a sucker for love and R&B so this album was basically made for me. Songs like “Heartbeat”, “Only You” and “Majaliwa” are radio-ready, very musical and distinct of Elani’s original style of writing in storytelling form. I divided the 11-track album into Love & Heartbreak. Songs like “Joto” and “Jinsi” are bonafide Swahili love songs, that I can see doing rounds at weddings. “Mara Mia”, “Nimejaribu” and “Kaa Mbali” on the other hand are heartbreak songs; with the latter, and “Maua”, a little bit more uptempo and also perfect for radio. “Yule” is my best album song for two reasons: Brian’s vocals are distinct as he takes the lead in verse one, and it showcases the balance of the trio, with Wambui and Maureen coming in with lesser power vocals but still soothing and endearing. It’s a great love album with commendable vocal arrangements – I just missed the party element. As an old friend and fan of Elani (Wambui, Brian & Maureen), I know how much this album means to them, and their fans. Thank you.
5. Spectrum — Kagwe Mungai
Kagwe produced Sauti Sol’s “Nishike”. The single was so sexy it got banned from mainstream media so it broke Kenyan Internet. That was 2014, just a year after his relocation back to Kenya from the UK where he was studying Music and Management Sciences at the University of Southampton. It didn’t take long after the success of “Nishike” when Kagwe started getting recognition. The music producer turned singer took that baton and ran away with it. He’s a dare devil. Those who have met or worked with him can attest to this. His 15-track debut album Spectrum has a couple of feel-good songs. “Good Times”, “You Know This” and “Doctor” all have that Afro-Carribean pop vibe. I really love the message, and musicality of “Pressure” featuring exemplary Kenyan trumpet player Owuor Arunga. This and “Till The End” a love song with Niniola are perfect soundtracks for film. Whether turning up in Trap tracks like “Superseena” and “Bass”–mashing up Gengetone and Kapuka, praising women in “You Know This” or singing about the struggle of everyday life issues like mental health in “Boys Don’t Cry”—Kagwe is a true representation of a new wave of Africa’s hybrid of artists onto experimental wavy sounds. I love “Miss Obi” sampling Angelique Kidjo. I can only conclude by echoing this statement from his stable: “His captivating essence of his writing, production and storytelling abilities adds to his appeal among those familiar with his music as well as globally.”
6. Nyumba — Jack Rooster
Rooster is a jack of all trades but master of house music. No pun intended. From 2012 he’s been actively building a solid career as a DJ, music producer and radio personality. Along the way he created his podcast: Deeper Sounds of Nairobi (DsoN)—the #1 House/Dance Music Podcast on iTunes in Kenya. Rooster delivers a brilliant discography in his debut album Nyumba (house in Swahili), released in Kenya in 2019 but globally March of 2020. I love the production of “House Movement”–which sounds like an episode off Rooster’s podcast or radio show. He sends shouts to various DJs and people, across multiple channels and industries in Africa, who have made a contribution to house movement. The Decimators (Nadra, Konkodi and Bon’eye are featured in “Rasta” alongside Terrianne Iraki, and in “Afrika Disco”. My album favourites include, “Siangalii”, “Sports Car” featuring Nadra & Kevin Grands, “Castles” with Terrianne Iraki, “All In” with Khulani, “Complicated” with Nadra and “Dereva”, with Jack Rooster speaking on road safety. The latter is an important message to drivers, but there is a deeper message to us all for we are drivers of our own lives – take caution. Nyumba is a glimpse into the type of African talent in the genre of House/Dance genre out here. All collaborations in the 11-track album are soulful and replay material. Rooster has always been committed to creating a sound that will take Kenyan music to the world by fusing an authentic Kenyan identity with an internationally recognized house music groove. We’re home guys.
7. Murasta — Ayrosh
Ayrosh makes singing in his vernacular – Gikuyu, such a cool affair. The Folk Fusion singer-songwriter who writes in both English and Swahili too is also an electric performer, who runs Folk Fusion Nairobi – his own live show event. His debut EP Murasta came at the right time, following his success in the live music scene and creating a solid fan base, who sing to his lyrics word for word at concerts. My first time at an Ayrosh concert, I asked myself, “Where have I been?” His 6-track EP visits Afro House and Afro Disco genres, a fusion that “was very successful,” he said. “Kirinyaga”, “Ngutunge” and “Uka Mami” are great tracks and perfect for mainstream radio. “Got Hitched is right up the alley with classic Pop songs for the long stay in the mainstream. “Nikikukosa” addresses the issue of contraception. It is a self-reflective track on a relationship that could have been better, had they took a better turn. Ayrosh is a master of revisiting old classics, fusing them with popular genres. When I interviewed Ayrosh he said, “I want people to look at me and say that I was one of the artists who made a change and not only in Kenya or Africa,” and I just thought – he’s already joined the league of change makers, unbeknownst to him.
8. Dive In — Mutoriah
Mutoriah is a musical genius and a legend in the making. The music producer and director is also a multi instrumentalist. His professional career as a solo artist just began full on in 2019, with the release of his debut album Dive In.Just like the title suggests, “Dive in” lead single will inspire you to overcome your fears to dive into unknown territory. At the age of 22, Mutoriah self-produced this excellent 12-track album, that was released at a sold out concert last June. I was there, it was so beautiful and I wished that older artists in the game, would have been there to learn some brilliance from this young cat. The production of “Maasai Power Trap” the Afro House tribal EDM track that took Kenyan social media by storm, even got him his first major international cameo, on the pan-African TV show Coke Studio Africa. From lyrics deeply reflective of an artist’s struggle to stay afloat and in a relationship at the same time, I loved the rawness of “Go” feat. Steph Kapela, and to discover Mutoriah’s voice in “Tosheka” feat. Bensoul. “Nielewe”, “Wewe” feat. Njerae and “Made up of Love” feat. Xenia all have a psychedelic effect and are radio friendly. My all time favourite is “Usiniringie” (an innovative clever mash up packaged in cheeky lyrics). I enjoyed this because its one of the few times when you can feel Mutoriah’s bravado and catch him with his guard down. From looks, voice, talent, charm, charisma and mad production skills—Mutoriah’s got it all!
9. Made in The Streets — H_art The Band
Skoko, Mordecai and Kenchez make H_art The Band—multi talented singers, instrumentalists and excellent performers. Their debut album Made in The Streets is lively and very instrumental, cutting across Reggae and Afro-pop genres. It’s truly representative of the feeling of being at a H_art The Band’s concert. The album carries 9 collaborations out of the album’s 13 tracks. “Linda Moyo” feat. Nyota Ndogo is a tale of forbidden love between a Swahili lady and a city boy, who is not approved by her father. This is H_art The Band’s best of the best when it comes to smooth collaboration, songwriting plus that amazing fuse of poetry by Skoko. Bensoul co-wrote “El Shaddai” produced by Cedo and also features in “Lover Lover”—these, “Linda Moyo” and Kizomba-inspired “Usiseme No” are my album favourites! Album bangers include “P.D.A” feat. Kaskazini, “Bad Manners” feat. Victoria Kimani, “Issa Vibe” feat. Sauti Sol and “Number One” feat. Seyi Shay, recorded from Nairobi during her second media tour in Kenya that my team and I managed. I was literally in the studio when they were teaching her Swahili lines for the song (March 2019). That was so cool! H_art The Band’s debut album was long overdue, glad that Made in The Streets has that timeless effect so I don’t really care if it had come earlier. I however wished that H_art The Band could have just given us two albums: one collabo EP and then a H_art The Band only album. I am just being selfish.
10. Mali Ya Umma — Juacali
King of Genge is back with his fourth studio album, Mali Ya Uma – a 15-track album, produced at Calif Records. Genge bangers include, “Najitoa”, “Maswali Kibao”, “Fiti Hivi”, “Safsana”, “Changamka” produced by Kanyeria and “Karibu Nairobi” which is a quick trip down the hustle and flow of the bustling city of Nairobi. Juliani welcomes us into the album with “Intro”—a mash up of sick beats in matching rhymes, with Juacali joining in the second verse, attesting to how personal the album is to him, and his legendary status. He’s been in the game for about 20 years and “Mwoto Sana” is the theme song to that legacy. Other album collaborators include Wyre in “Vile Naskia”—a song about finding love and Moonboy in “Anaheri”, both are groovy and banging. Some people are successful because they are street smart and not because of the schools they went to – that’s what “Bongo La Biashara Part 2” is about. I am adding this and “Changamka” in my album favourites. “Woyoyo”—a Reggae song with Juacali singing is a must listen! From the construction, delivery and rhymes in Mali Ya Uma, Juacali brings to life a sound from the early 2000s era of Kenyan music that was characterized by Genge-style rap, birthing Genge stars like Mejja, Jimwat, Rat-a-tat, the late Lady S, Pili Pili and of course Nonini. Borrowing heavily from old-school underground Hip-hop beats, “Rrrrrrrrrr” is just a testament that Juacali is a GOAT of sorts.
11. Reign — High Rennaissance
The first time I heard this record, I just asked myself, “Who is High Rennaissance and how the hell don’t I know such a dope artist?” High Rennaissance terms Reign as “a concept project and audio-movie”. The album artwork is a picture of his younger self, holding a guitar with his mother feeding him porridge. It’s unbelievable how talented he is, having self-produced and recorded all its songs even though he was battling depression and anxiety at the time. “Nu Kings” featuring Solmate Music is my best album song because I can feel High’s aggression and how he juxtaposes names of celebrated Hip-hop heads like Khaligraph in the song. It’s kind of like his way of paying homage to them but still seeing himself from across their proverbial mirrors. “It ends up with me reigning supreme.” – his own words about “Nu Kings”. Album collaborations include with San Andre & Small Lethal in “Free Shows”, Sonnets in “Dreams I”, Sammy Poet in “2012”, Nene K & Trabolee in “Psalms 82.6”, Obrah the Poet in “Artista” and Muddah in “First Sunday of the Month”. “Dreams II” with Red Dress has got that King Kaka—Swahili shakespeare style. “Pieces of a Kid” is very personal and an ode to the ones he lost. The ones we lost. I feel M.I Abaga would vibe to elements of the song. Would love to see a High Rennaissance x M.I collabo. “Dark Days” speaks on corruption, addiction and depression. I like how High Rennaissance has delivered a soulful and jazzy hip-hop in the 12-track conscious album, not withstanding the rawness.
12. Wine on a Wednesday — Suzziah
Suzziah’s debut EP Wine on a Wednesday is an impressive and vibey 5-track project. Barak Jacuzzi is smooth with his rap in “Go Down”—a flirtatious encounter between two, playing out in Nairobi high life. While “Falling” featuring Emma Cheruto is such a beautiful love song showing off how far Suzziah can stretch her vocals, “Tucheze” has got that Seyi Shay “Yolo Yolo”-esque flair. “Lay Down” is an assertive and dope contemporary R&B tune. Shappaman features in “Only” – another easy-going R&B track. All EP tracks are replay material. Love Suzziah’s attitude in this project and can’t wait to hear her full album, with more ballads flaunting her vocal prowess. I think she can still max that out. Suzziah considers this EP “a solid foundation for a long, impactful and legendary career.” You go girl!
13. The Love Sessions — Noel Nderitu
Noel is my artist. I am such a lover of love and love songs and he really gets it. The Love Sessions EP follows his successful music projects: The Bridge album (2017) and Undugu EP (2018). The 6-track love songs project, details the joy and pain of relationships, with soulful “Tusichoke” feat. Kenyan power vocalist Sage in itself about the struggle of love. “Blame” would typically be my best in the EP because it’s a dope R&B record, complete with a commercial tendency but I pick the unusual one “Unspoken” which is a 6.45 minute-song and no! It’s not a Lingala song! I love that it’s got that gospel-feel and so, showing us both sides of Noel. It also represents Noel’s singing and songwriting style that sometimes flows like a storytelling session. It’s also a live recording so it makes me feel as if I am watching him perform live. Noel features the honey-voiced Lisa Oduor-Noah in “Your Name”—what happens when to strangers instantly fall in love and want to get to know each other. Noel is a genuine artist, super talented, charming and very humble while at it. I know this because I have had a chance to work close to him while at Coke Studio Africa, where he has been a back up vocalist. I am not even gonna talk about his vocal runs … Just listen to “Over You”. Thank me later. His role in producing The Love Sessions EP shows that he is more than just a dope singer-songwriter.
14. Fallin’ Apart — Xenia Manasseh
While at Berklee College of Music, where she graduated, Xenia Manasseh had the opportunity to sing background vocals for Crissy Collins and Gloria Estefan as well as sing lead for Beyonce’s original band, while they had their own tour. She’s one of Kenya’s most unique singers and songwriters and her debut 6-track concept EP Fallin’ Apart is perfect display. Xenia adds, “This EP is about the downfall of a relationship, starting with the relationship already on its last leg and by the end, the relationship is over and that is okay!” My favourite EP songs include “See Me” and “Found Me”, the latter’s got that bop, groove and arrangement that you need in a certified soulful R&B record. The simplicity of “Found Me” is intriguing, from the beats to very minimal arrangement of harmonies to sentimental songwriting. In that chronology, “Don’t Go” is a plea to stay, while title track “Fallin’ Apart” is reflective of a relationship that can’t be salvaged. There is power in realizing the self or our mistakes. That’s what “When it’s Over” is about—short (1.46), bare (only piano & vocals), fragile, the damage, yet a strong affirmation that like a phoenix she will rise again. If there were an R&B museum, they would have the likes of Mary J, Aaliyah, Tank and Xenia in it. That’s how best I can describe the dopeness of Fallin’ Apart EP.
15. Free Steph — Steph Kapela
My G. No other singer can rap or rapper can sing like Steph Kapela—Kenya’s best at this. It’s always tricky to be stuck in both worlds but Steph always plays it cool. It’s almost as if his debut EP: Free Steph was made for us to finally rid him of the labels. “Intro” is word playing this scenario, plus every other artist’s blessing or nightmare (depending on where the art is stuck), when fans and media won’t stop demanding for new content. “Walahi”—an ode to the beauty and charm of a lover is cleverly written, in Nairobi’s cool street lingo (Sheng’). “Too Easy” is a summary of Steph’s best Rap life, as he flows, rhymes while reflecting on life lessons. First off don’t be talking about the culture, money talks don’t be talking about “Exposure”— track 5 is straight spitting fire and truth. Artists are tired of being used and not being paid their work in the name of exposure. Steph confesses, “I am so familiar with this game I’ve been through shit,” while asserting that he’s gonna keep up with the Rap. Free Steph is a really dope 5-track EP, displaying Steph’s best of both worlds. His debut album is complete as we speak and I am so happy that he’s now free and ready to release this.
16. Pisces SZN — Vallerie Muthoni
Multi-talented Kenyan-American recording artist, Vallerie Muthoni, is sassy, eccentric and versatile. While dabbling in singing and rapping, Vallerie has created her own sound ‘Nu African Sauce’ heavily influenced by Soul, Funk and Groove, among other genres. Her Pisces SZN EP named after her zodiac sign dropped March 14th 2019 as a celebration of her eighteenth birthday. The 3-track EP is a good mix of genres including R&B, Hip-hop and Trap. The title track “Spicy SZN” featuring Taio and Ruby is a cool and groovy R&B song—perfect for summer or house party-vibes. Video tells it all. In “Legendary”, Vallerie is switching it up, rapping to a bopping hip sound, with the cool production behind “New Flex” taking us back to her singing and R&B. Pieces SZN follows Vallerie’s 2018 debut EP: The Wavey Soul. It’s hard to pin her down and I feel like we’re yet to see her full potential. I mean she’s only 19 with the world ahead of her. I just love her cool.
17. 6ixviewsii8k — Boutross
Boutross is a Kenyan rapper, singer and producer from the group AD Family. 6ixviewsii8k mixtape is a representation of Nairobi culture and best of popular emerging music genre in Nairobi Shrap, which is a fuse of Rap and Trap packaged in Nairobi’s sheng’ lingo. It’s a grand project, so I was very picky with my favourites, choosing those cutting across Kenyan urban street tales and trends. Check out “Bank” feat. Barak Jacuzzi, “Yengs” feat. Master VK, “Omoka” feat. Wakadinali & Mastar VK, “Hit That Whoa” feat. Groove and “Safi” feat. Asum Garvey. “Chase” feat. TNT is really dope! Damn! These Nai young rappers ain’t playing. “Band Wagon” feat. Nameless is super cool. However, I think his remake of “Juju” by Nameless was an unnecessary massacre but still a good trial. “Band Wagon” and “Pendeka” feat. Zikki & Xenia are my favourites in the mixtape, because they are banging, very musical and not typical Shrap records. Some solo Boutross solo tracks to check out include “Cholera” and “Fell in Love”. Big up ABH Sound for mixing and mastering this mixtape. You will definitely appreciate this mixtape if you are a true lover of Hip-hop and culture.
PS: Boutross will drop a deluxe edition of the 24-track 6ixviewsii8k mixtape with 6 bonus songs (April 18th 2020).
18. Tatu feat KDaGr8 — Xtatic
Xtatic is such a dope artist. Period. She hasn’t really been in the limelight much since her deal with an international record label went sour. Life also happened. She however never lost her innate talent or stopped making music and her 3-track EP: Tatu produced by KDaGr8 and engineered by Provoke is a testimony to this. Xtatic is deliberate and you can hear this in most of her raps. For instance “Reignition” is about how she turned her ups and downs into triumph. Xtatic is going against your favourite rapper in my favourite EP track “Not Today”, flaunting her Rap and singing prowess, Nicki-minaj style. She does justice in the psychedelic “Taste” track, with infectious Rap and a cool bridge creating a balance. Eryka Badu would love this! Tatu follows her 2015 TATU Mixtape. I would easily place her above acclaimed Kenyan rappers because most times they are all about the rhyme, bravado and hype and not always the art of rap.
19. The Juice Bar 2 — Barak Jacuzzi
The 12-track The Juice Bar 2 is a continuation of Jacuzzi’s debut The Juice Bar, featuring collaborations with Karun in the R&B jam “Come Over”, Kagwe Mungai in “Coco Tings” and Slim Thick Phat in “STP” that samples Naughty Boy & Sam Smith’s “La la la”. Tracks like “Twende Juu”, “Stay in Your Lane” and “Maintain” are hardcore with the usual Rap bravado, somewhat representing his defiant style. My favourites are “Yeah 4x”—a dope Shrap tune feat. Boutross & Jovie Jov and “Bubble Up”—a Dancehall and Reggae track capable of becoming a big banger. This is perfect for all club DJs – thank me later! Barak is claiming his rightful position in “Gas” and “Staki Kubonga” telling off them haters or time-wasters. While the beat and flow for both are cool, I still feel like the lyrical content would have been better. Barak has got a cool flow. That paired with his go-getter attitude and bubbly personality is infectious. I am already subscribed to his reality TV show. When is it launching?
BONUS: Check out my past album reviews below: