Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Okmalumkoolkat – Holy Oxygen I

Simiso Zwane aka Okmalumkoolkat aka Futuremfana aka Smartmampara aka Zulucompura aka Allblackblackkat aka Bhut’yang’chaza is…


Simiso Zwane aka Okmalumkoolkat aka Futuremfana aka Smartmampara aka Zulucompura aka Allblackblackkat aka Bhut’yang’chaza is undoubtedly the busiest figure of the increasingly vibrant South African hip hop scene. Having started out as a dancer and designer from Durban, Zwane made his way to eGoli around 2006 and has been on the hustle ever since. The formation of Dirty Paraffin with Dokta SpiZee saw them create their very own sound in the form of Primustofu – an infectious and uncompromisingly authentic style of futuristic kwaito and international pantsula inspired by the background they shared where every household owned a Primus Stove powered by paraffin. Their debut release, DP EP, dropped in 2012 and launched their sound south toward Cape Town.

While much of current mainstream South African hip hop holds a significant amount of noticeably South African traits, in 2012 the impending burst of hip hop into the mainstream was still growing and most artists were still pushing an Americanized and homogenised sound. This meant that Dirty Paraffin owned a unique space, providing them with abundant edge and grit over and above that which they earned through live performances that saw Zwane’s dancing, stage presence and relentless delivery leaving audiences breathless. This soon led to collaborations with UK electronic trio, LV, which sent the Okmalumkoolkat franchise into overdrive with tracks such as ‘Sebenza’, ‘Boomslang’ (both released through UK label Hyperdub), ‘Push It’ and ‘Inhliziyo Yami Izibozi’. The past two years have seen him cruising from one successful collaborative track to the next with artists such as Sibot, Riky Rick, Reason, JR, Spoek Mathambo, Cassper Nyovest, Ox++ and JakobSnake when performing live.

However, the release of Holy Oxygen I definitively announces Okmalumkoolkat as a solo artist. The EP, released through Austrian label Affine Records, was produced by label mates Cid Rim and The Clonius. Cid Rim was recently in the country for a truly impressive set at the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival in February, but in a recent interview PLATFORM did with Zwane (which will be released this week) he explains that the relationship had been formed quite a while before then. The collaboration has resulted in four tracks which differ quite significantly from each other, but together provide a collectively brilliant announcement of Okmalumkoolkat as a solo act and pave a sincere and appropriate veer in the path at this stage of his journey.

As has always been the case with Zwane’s subject matter, his delivery is what makes all the difference. A lot of what he raps about is similar to that of any other rapper: girls, money, being cooler than cool and the struggle to getting where he is now. And this echoes exactly what he expressed in the interview where he explains how he’s a fan of all things lo-fi that look really good but also seem like anyone could have made them. He knows that when it comes to his music a lot of people seem to say, “Hey?! I could have said that!”, but he would have said it first. And that’s what matters.

Holy Oxygen I finds Zwane slightly more vulnerable and mature. He mentioned that all his work predating it has been channelling Okmalumkoolat – the mischievous party boy – but that he is now revealing Futuremfana – the honest, focused and future-bearing demigod. This is dealt with in the opening track, ‘Allblackblackkat’ in which he depicts the premonition of a godlike character: “Allblackkat got a call from God / God came through as a humanoid”; “Now I got powers like Harry Potter / dancing with the wolves no Kevin Costner / I stay high like Peter Tosh / a high priest like Credo Mutwa / past, present and the future / mfana future/ super future”. The track is bass heavy with subtle, but effective drum line snare rolls and a light synth line holding the upper frequencies which are then replaced with some dense synth chord progressions for the chorus.  ‘Fancy Footwork’ is the most danceable of the four tracks and by far the catchiest. It signifies the differentiation between Okmalumkoolkat and Futuremfana as he flows between ambitious lines like “My head is thinking profits, tax and deposits / We busy thinking business like this dancefloor is my office” into those which express the temptations for distraction and mischief like “She thinks I wanna bone her, but I really wanna date her / Asked her for her data / She said see you later / Called me alligator / I’m a snake”. These lines ride above infectious pantsula-inspired synth chirps and a driving bass which would have any dancefloor from Jozi to LA going off.

‘Holy Oxygen’ holds a slightly more serious tone with his most personal line yet, “Why do you think I’m rapping? / You don’t know what happened / I was never happy when my father left me / Left me as a baby way back in the 80s”. It’s this level of vulnerability and honesty that he’s willing to reveal that provides lines more focused on cementing his ideals of the future with sincerity and credibility: “I’m MJ-Foxing, back to the future and I’m chilling in the front seat / Cooler than a palm tree / The coolest in the country” and “I’m a fuckin’ demigod / jump into the eyes of Candice Swanepoel / a dip in the swimming pool / I’m a dangerous chemical / Zulu is lyrical / Zulu is spiritual / if I kill you you’ll be late for your funeral”. The fourth track, ‘Ijusi’, has a more ominous quality compared to the refined nature of the others. It opens with a chromatic descent of grimy bass and builds into more synth heavy sections as the lyrics intensify before falling out and the bass makes a return. This is repeated throughout the track creating a dreamlike effect. The EP closes with an instrumental version of ‘Fancy Footwork’ which feels appropriate considering its irresistible danceability. 

At first, the more refined quality of the production seems like too far a departure from what one has come to expect from Okmalumkoolkat. But it soon becomes clear how fitting it really is. As an EP which holds the ideals of progression and futurism at its core, it has to be representative of the past, present and future. Much like his collaborations with LV, Holy Oxygen acts as another shining example of the benefits of collaboration, especially those that occur on an international level. Both Cid Rim and The Clonius are not South African, but this provides the offering with an essential nudge into an international space and he owns it. It also signals the foreign interest in a truly authentic South African sound and a corresponding need to be a part of it. Zwane is constructing his empire, as he expresses in the closing line of the EP, “Your mind is my colony”. With years of hard work and relentless hustle behind him it’s no wonder that the sentiment of an empire is no longer some far-fetched dream. As Jake Lipman (JakobSnake), owner of Gaartjie and Zwane’s DJ/Manager, mentioned in our interview, “Simiso and artists like Simiso are the reason that I started Gaartjie. He’s devastating. He’s the voice of a generation.”

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