Can’t believe 2021 is almost coming to an end. I’ve been the busiest this year but music never left my side. I wanted to share with you some of the great and refreshing sounds I’ve been jamming to all year and recently, so I compiled 10 dope albums and EPs released in 2021 from some of my favourite East African artists. Please note there are more projects out and I couldn’t review them all (I will try in future reviews). I also made this review’s companion playlist ‘The East African Sound: 2021 (Vol 1) now available on Apple Music. Listen.
The list comes in no particular order:
1. Music for The Eagles – Various Stars
I won’t even lie, these are the sickest and baddest sounds I’ve heard since I could remember! East Africa’s fast-rising underground music movement happens to be one of the hottest emerging communities in music today and I couldn’t be happier that SoundCloud decided to look this side on the latest episode of its music discovery series, SCENES. ‘SCENES: East African Underground’ and Music for the Eagles, a ﬁrst-in-series companion album released with famed Nyege Nyege Tapes isn’t your typical East African sound. All 14 never-before-released tracks are unpredictable and certainly bound to shape sounds of the future. Futuristic acid dancehall track “Gan Dem” by Uganda’s Ratigan is “fearless, lyrically conscious and politically engaged”. I echo SoundCloud’s statement 100% Just remember to either use good headphones to hear this or bang it at the club. Tanzanian acts: Anti Vairas in “Kidogo” and Kidene Fighter in “Ugai Gai” set up album on fire. “Kidogo” is a mad production. French experimental producer VAMPI currently based in London perfectly fuses Anti Vairas’ Swahili rap singing in electronic club music, with Vairas delivering her rap-singing in traditional Swahili style. Kidene Fighter takes the crown in the fast paced electronic track with a dose of Swahili Chura Dance music. I have to say that Kidene delivers in this just like Tanzanian aunties do it! Ladies make sure you get your dera for this before you face down 🙂 Album’s must-listens include from Kenyan acts: “Shrap Over The Rest” by Shrap god Boutross and “Andnowawordfromoursponsors” by up and coming Kenyan future-pop artist KABEAUCHÉ. I find an addictive mystique in the latter, “Baby” by Flo – Ugandan DJ/producer and multi-instrumentalist who is also one third of HHY & the Kampala Unit and “Trance” track by Uganda’s Afrorack. There’s actually more to the compilation than East Africa as it also features music from Aunty Razor (Nigeria), Phelimuncasi (South Africa), One Djezz (Mali) and of course VAMPI. Every single time I listen to Music for The Eagles I literally hear something new and different. It’s a refreshing sound and truly representative of the popping underground scene, now just bubbling into the world thanks to the SCENES spotlight.
2. Eyes Off Me – Stella Mwangi
Which other African or European rapper is badder than Stella Mwangi? The Kenyan-Norwegian rapper has dropped her fourth album Eyes Off Me. It’s a follow up to her 2016 Hollywood self-titled EP, in the sense that it’s also deliberately made in LA and for Hollywood sync licensing. This 10-track high-energy album is a fusion of heavy Dance, Hip Hop and Ragga sounds – a compilation produced by a set of LA music producers including Kairo, Koko, Dan White and Rumblinmusic. Album must-listens include “New Ting”, “Eyes Off Me”, the bouncy “You and I”, “Hit Em Up” and “Runnin’”. This lot literally takes my imagination into fast moving action films or something like Fast & Furious. This is music that empowers you or gets you moving. My album favourites include Hip Hop banger “Work It” and Dance/Ragga bangers: “Naughty” and “If You Want It” because they both got that Stella bravado at its best – fresh, raw and ballsy. Sean Paul would want to jump on all tracks. The title “Naughty” speaks for what this track is about. Plus if you know Stella, she never was the one afraid to ‘to talk that shit’. For some reason I couldn’t stop listening to “Take Off”, something about how the beats progressions that’s so simple yet so dope, addictive and grand. If the success of Stella’s 2016 Hollywood EP in the realm of music syncing is anything to go by; having had “Set If Off” feature on `Being Mary Jane’ season 4 episode 1, “Work” being picked as the official theme song for Reebok Classics Free Your Style 2017 campaign and “Get up & Go” featuring as a soundtrack on the second season of FOX Networks’ Rosewood, among other wins – Eyes Off Me is picking up the momentum from right where Stella left it at. I love when music is so well engineered, mixed and mastered and this album really went all out.
3. Made in Africa – Eddy Kenzo
I will try to not be biased on this one as Eddy Kenzo is a really good friend of mine and we have worked together for years. The truth is I always thought that Eddy’s music is really dope, especially because it’s always authentic and I feel that it’s a great representative of Ugandan urban music. The album Made in Africa is for everyone who loves groovy African music, especially that with distinct African rhythms and guitar riffs. Its title was also inspired by the fact that Eddy collaborated with some African greats in the remix of their songs that have inspired him like in “Missounwa” with Monique Seka (Mali) and “Moni” with the legendary Kanda Bongo Man (Congo). Certified album hits include “Weekend”, “Tugende”, “Kimuli”, “Omwoyo”, “Twelale” and “Leero Party” feat. Herbert Skillz, Kokode and Fredo. My album favourites include the Amapiano “Uganda Oye” and Hip Hop track “Shakamo” feat. American rapper Tribe Mark. The duo created a banger and shot a befitting video Eddy-style complete with dancers (including kids) getting down in Kampala Streets – I love it! All 21 songs of this album are replay material so take your time and immerse yourself into good music that will make you forget all your problems and just want to dance.
4. A Side of Me – Nikita Kering’
Kenyan singer-songwriter Nikita Kering’ is not ordinary. She’s only 19 but acts way wiser and more mature than you would expect of a 19-year-old. You can tell this from the style and choice of her sound in the 7-track A Side of Me EP, her lyrics and even from her interviews when you hear her speak. She knows what she wants and where she wants to go. I know this because I had the pleasure of working with her through my Anyiko PR outfit when she was releasing the EP single “Never Let You Go” – a genuine pop-meets-ballad track, displaying Nikita’s signature powerful vocals. My EP’s favourites include the explosive “Ex” and “Crossing Lines”. The bonafide R&B and pop tracks tackle heartbreak and romance – things you would expect Nikita wouldn’t know much about at her age. I can only describe “Better Than Ever” as Yebba or Adele caliber. Nikita said, “This project is an important part of my growth in this music industry as it presents my versatility as an artist.” This EP is just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to this young talent well on her way into more boldness and greatness. She just got named as the first East African Africa Rising artist by Apple Music talent development program. Can’t wait to hear the other side of Nikita when her album drops.
5. Definition of Love – Mbosso
Just like the title of Mbosso’s 15-track album Definition of Love suggests, this is a love album. However, the songs touch on love in different forms and types of relationships; from make-ups to breakups and staying together for the long time. Mbosso is the kind of artist that makes me sad for those who don’t understand Swahili because his flair in songwriting would just get lost in translation. In the first Zouk track “Mtaalam”, Mbosso is praising his staunch lover in a perfectly penned love letter. It’s refreshing to see a different side of Mbosso in Bongo Pop tracks: “Kiss Me” and “Kadada” feat. Darassa, one of Tanzania’s illest new school rappers. Album’s must-listens include “Sakata” feat. Flavour, “Pakua” feat. Rayvanny and “Yes” feat. Ugandan singer Spice Diana. My album favourites include Amapiano track “Kamseleleko” feat. Baba Levo and “Nipo Naye”, Bongo flavour meets dancehall tune, dedicated to haters – like sorry guys I am still with my lover. If you want to get the vibe of a band playing at a traditional Swahili wedding or Swahili family event, “Tulizana” is the perfect show, including the theme of the song that encourages lovers to work towards loving each other to an extent of providing each other a calming effect. I don’t know what I expected but I would never have thought that a Mbosso album would sound this dope.
6. Greatness – Femi One
I dig Femi One and her brand and like the way she’s worked hard at it and kept her style consistent. Her 14-track Greatness album features 9 collaborations. My best collaborations in order of priority include “Freelanga Free” feat. Zakah, “Sina Haja” feat. Sanaipei Tande and “Duru” feat. Joh Makini. “Jibongeshe” and “Greatness” are dope tracks and show how fierce and bold of a femcee Femi is. I love the Ragga-esque touch in “Wapewe” feat. B2C from Uganda, “Kuzina Nawe” feat. Feffe Busi (Uganda), “Diva” feat. Jay Rox (Zambia) and “Selekta” feat. Oksyde (my favourite album song) –
this lot is more than just Rap and Hip Hop but are club and dance bangers. The collaborations are dope but I feel like I would have enjoyed listening to more of her solo tracks, especially because this is her debut album. I feel like having to hear so many others and review them is distracting me from her. For a debut, Greatness truly is a great album and deserving of its title. She said, “This album is a testament to the fact that I am a product of time, patience and hard work.” I have no doubt that this album will catapult Femi One into even more greatness. Only one thing, the mixing and mastering of this album is off and it would be great if they can adjust this, where possible. Great songs like “Diva” feat. Jay Rox could come out sounding better. “Greatness combines Femi One’s lyrical prowess, signature punch lines, nuances, and thought-provoking rawness with a funky new age twist. All her songs are a labour of love for her fans; a powerful package that is set to make history” – couldn’t say it better than a statement from Femi One’s label Kaka Empire.
7. Kitenge EP – Nviiri The Storyteller
Kitenge is a popular African cloth with various colours, designs and can sometimes have wise messages and sayings written or encrypted on them. Even thought it’s an everyday African wear, it’s still so fashionable and can be individualized in the sense of various styles and uses of the cloth. Just from this description, you can already imagine the depth of Kitenge EP. In the opener track “Baridi” featuring Kenya’s number female balladist Sanaipei Tande, Nviiri and Tande have a back and forth in the sensual track, in which two lovers yearning for each other find the perfect opportunity and time (Nairobi winter) to hook up. Only this might quell their pain that no doctor or vodka could heal. It’s a wonderfully arranged R&B song and very underrated in comparison to other EP songs. “Mae Wendi (Your Song)” is an extremely beautiful song, the chorus partly sung in my native Luo language. The perfect dedication to your forever lover – this is one is for weddings and engagement parties. “Kitenge”, the title track is the depth of depths, and even if you listen and don’t understand Swahili you will be left floating in Nviiri’s sweet runs and progressions. This song is about making sure you don’t lose yourself in a relationship. It kind of going like – a perfect relationship is not about dressing up in your best Kitenge; is a mirror to putting up a happy face or even a wedding, while you’re not 100% sure that you want to do it. I love that he says that being in love shouldn’t be complicated or about making calculations and that if you’re also not ready or in a complicated relationship – that’s also ok. “Niko Sawa” feat. Bien from Sauti Sol is such a dope and fresh R&B breakup song. The EP flaunts the different colours and textures of love; straight from a hookup in “Baridi”, eternal love in “Mae Wendi”, a complicated relationship in “Kitenge”, breakup in “Niko Sawa”, trying to make up in “Bembeleze” to finally “Birthday Song” – at this last stage things didn’t work out and at least he is still mature enough to wish his [former lover according to the EP theme] a happy birthday, at least for old times sake. Genius album. Love all the 6 tracks and they are all replay material. I want a Nviiri album ASAP!
8. GIFTED – Pryshon
There is something magical about Kenyan singer Pryshon – her album GIFTED is amazing and a pleasant surprise. It’s a hybrid of Pop, R&B and Gengetone sounds, in themes around love and various relationships. Album must-listens include Swahili tracks: “Sitachelewa” feat. Bensoul, “One 4 Me” feat. Masauti and “Subira”. I love the rawness in Pryshon’s voice in “Sweet Melodies”, “Nipe Sababu (Unconditional Love” and “Girlfriend” – these are really dope R&B tracks and my favourites of the album. You know Pryshon is versatile in Pop and groovy Dance album songs including “Do It”, “GIFTED” and “Bundas” feat. Rekles – I never saw the latter coming. She’s killing it in a Gengetone track. Very dope! Even though Pryshon’s album has 17 tracks, I feel like at the end I still wanted more of her and an enticing track like “Secure” feat. Kristoff makes me want more. When I started listening to GIFTED, the first thing that came to my mind is that she still sounds like she’s holding a part of herself and I just can’t wait to hear her sing all out. This always has to do with the producer, songwriters and arrangers of an album. Not to take away Pryshon’s efforts in this 17-track album but I feel like this album can still bang harder and there’s still a lot we are yet to see and experience from Pryshon. I really want to hear more of Pryshon. She really has got mad potential.
9. Medicine EP – Bensoul
Bensoul is a crazy songwriter. His 4-track Medicine EP following his 2020 Quarantunes EP is largely acoustic and made for love and lovers. “Stereo” is an ode to finding the one. I love that it’s easy going and has that rhumba groove. I pity you if you haven’t seen Bensoul perform live in concert but not to worry this jam gives you a feel of Bensoul’s live acoustics. “Sugar Rush” is a little slower in tempo and a serenade to a lover, declaring eternal love so special that the stars shine as bright in sync – this is a perfect song for weddings and a great show for Bensoul’s lyrical prowess. The EP’s title track “Medicine” is an addictive Afro pop acoustic ode to love with a Reggae bounce. In the song, Bensoul literally claims that his lover’s medicine (love) cures anything and everything – it’s my EP favourite. “Ntala Nawe” is one of Bensoul’s classics and older songs. I know that it was written in 2018 or before then and Cedo and Benpol had released a version of this song. Bensoul himself made me understand that he was the original songwriter of “Ntala Nawe”. It’s not my cup of tea but I must say, one of those Swahili love songs that stand the test of time – another one for weddings. We want a Bensoul album already. It’s time.
10. Zuba – Mike Kayihura
Little is documented about how talented and amazing Rwandese singer-songwriter Mike Kahiyura is. I have read that he attended music school in Ethiopia and have heard from my Ugandan connection that he also has roots there. I also know that he wrote Bruce Melodie’s chart topping hit single “Katerina”—you can hear Bruce talk about it in episode 3 of my VIP ACCESS podcast here. Kahiyura’s second EP Zuba is a personal favourite of mine. I love the texture of Mike’s voice, his soulful R&B music and the velvety-feel of this album’s 8 tracks. Album must-listens include the sleepy yet sensual “Anytime” and “Besties” feat. Angell Mutoni who is a dope rapper. My best album songs include: “Sleepy Mind”, “Ride My Wave” (with Hip Hop meeting R&B in production in the latter two), the bonafide Pop /R&B track “Jaribu (Try)” sang in Swahili and English and “Zuba” – such a beautiful song and a smooth declaration of love to a lover. It cleverly dances between R&B and Amapiano and I love how in this track and “Anytime”, Mike mixes English and Kinyarwanda. Ok I just realized I almost named all songs as my favourite so the best of the best is “Tuza”. Listen carefully; it has that “Katerina” magic. Which woman doesn’t want a man to sing and tell her how he’s gonna love and take care of her? This man is so smooth. So why are you all sleeping on him? I bet all my money on Mike Kayihura.