Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: AKA – Levels

Since releasing the Royal School of Hip Hop with his two high school best friends as Entity, Kiernan Forbes (AKA)…

 Since releasing the Royal School of Hip Hop with his two high school best friends as Entity, Kiernan Forbes (AKA) has come a long way. He established himself as one of the best producers in the country in his association with IV League, and 2011’s Alter Ego really pushed him on the path to mainstream success. Since then he has opened for Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Rick Ross and 2Chainz before announcing earlier this year that he was done opening for overseas artists. At this stage, he’s successful enough to do so – Levels was number 3 on the iTunes charts (behind only the latest iteration of Now! and an album from Hilltop Worship, which gives you a small idea of how our local music industry works, even online) before it was even released.

The album opens strongly with the minute-long ‘Levels’.. AKA sounds like a completely new rapper here to the one we were exposed to on Alter Ego. It appears as though the confidence he was never lacking has been paired with a newfound mastery of his skill. His melodic flow (inspired, like so many others right now, by Atlanta, and Migos in particular) is contrasted perfectly with the bark of his hook-delivery. The song gives way to a masterful coda, the beat emptying out to sparseness and choral-chant synths with Forbes chanting “Every one of these flows mo’fos gonna analyse”. ‘Run Jozi’, arguably the album’s strongest cut, follows in a similar vein. Migos have clearly influenced local rappers heavily in the last twelve months, and the flow made famous on the Drake-guesting ‘Versace’ can be heard here again. K.O, who has skyrocketed in prominence due to the popularity of the brilliant ‘Caracara’ (which AKA produced), also jumps on with a strong verse in the same vein, his infused with a manic, magnetic energy. It isn’t a straight bite though – the style is melded and utilized expertly by AKA and K.O here. 

If the blueprint that those first three songs laid out had been followed, this album might have actually added up to a serious artistic statement. AKA has long-referred to himself as the ‘Prince’ of South African hip hop, and many assumed Levels would serve as his play for ‘King’ status. On the opening track, Molekane goes as far as to dub him “King Forbes.” But apart from its strong first quarter, there isn’t much to suggest he cares much about that at all. Perhaps this shouldn’t be of any surprise. The build-up to the album had AKA repeatedly claiming it was “more than” a typical hip hop album; the lead-up single to it was the Robyn Thicke-via Daft Punk ‘Congratulate’. And this genre-busting attitude is certainly not new to this country. The idea’s most famous calling card globally happened when Paul Simon road on the coattails of our own Lady Smith Black Mambazo’s excellence, and it has felt like a necessary, if often forced, musical ideal here since at least 1994. Not that there’s any Kurt Darren on Levels, just that the move to incorporate Mi Casa’s popular cheese-pop by getting J’Something to provide the hook on the EDM-riffing ‘Sunshine’ ends up sounding like an unfortunate mix of Jimmy Nevis and 2014-Goldfish, with AKA finding himself in uncomfortable proximity to the party rap of Will.I.Am. The album jumps from one popular sound to another with the abandon of a beatnik at a drug parlour, which ultimately forces it to lose any sense of cohesion, even if some of the composite parts are occasionally stellar. 

‘All Eyes On Me’ mines the club-ready elements of dancehall and employs the talents of Da Les and Jr. ‘Daddy Issues’ has a beat that sounds like ‘Super Rich Kids’ and moves firmly into Drake-circa-Thank Me Later territory and closes strongly. ‘Let Me Show You’ highlights his propensity to swirl around in the same bracket as J. Cole. None of these songs on their own are terrible, but they speak to a rapper unable to find a clear identity and a discernible voice through which to express that self.

One of the most interesting (or at least ‘most exciting’) subplots to the run-up to this album has been the supposed beef between Forbes and relative new-kid-on-the-block Cassper Nyovest. Following the massive success of his ‘Doc Shebeleza’, Nyovest made the claim that he had the “biggest single in the country”, which Forbes did not take kindly to. Whether or not the whole thing was blown out of proportion by a public hungry for a local rivalry to match those we’re fed seemingly weekly by Complex and their Stateside ilk, the fact that Forbes felt the need to respond to Nyovest’s claims at all show that he’s taken note of the fact that there’s a new crop of rappers emerging in South Africa, many of whom have the kind of abundant talent and levels of support to threaten Forbes in a serious manner. Given that, it is unfortunate that Levels is not the powerhouse commercial hip hop album it might’ve been. Forbes panders too hard for support from too many corners rather than solidifying it within the (sizeable and growing) one he already occupies. Nyovest has an album out in the next month, as does the endlessly exciting Okmalumkoolkat, and it is unclear whether Forbes has done enough to reassure the masses, who have been frothing over everything those two have touched in the last twelve months, that he is still on top.

While there are a few noticeably bad decisions on Levels, for the most part it is by no means an amalgamation of poor taste and misguided choices. Forbes clearly has his ear to the ground and is refreshingly in-touch with some of the past year’s most exciting trends, in hip hop and beyond. There are some real moments of brilliance here, but they are too few, too confused, too muddled and too schizophrenic to add up to the kind of album he so clearly sought after. It’s a pity. Next better player. 

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