When Cape Town based rapper Sipho The Gift self-released his debut project, The Coming of Age, he was riding a crest of growing confidence and relevance. His production skills had been honed through his persistent behind-the-scenes work with the US-based Immaculate Taste Records. His connection and approach to the world of indie blogs had been refined through a number of collaborative one-off singles and releases.
When the music was released, Sipho himself described it as a relatable and expressive listen, detailing “the mind state of a young man growing up.” He seemed equipped to become even more influential in the rap scene. Two years later, after a period defined by long silences and scant releases, the first words on Sipho’s brilliant, painful new EP Kintsugi are: “I wish somebody had told me it would be this tragic.”
“After Coming of Age there was a little down period where I wasn’t winning with music,” says Sipho over the phone, in what is the understatement of the year. Coming of Age didn’t get the responses he expected, which is one thing, but having two hard drives filled with music and losing a laptop is another tragedy entirely.
The narrative of Kintsugi begins here – going as far as admitting to suicidal thoughts during this low period. It’s a stark beginning, but also a deliberate establishing shot showing the mise en scène – sleeping on floors, not listening to much new rap – before detailing the growth away from it.
Kintsugi is a Japanese art of mending cracked and broken porcelain, using ornamental materials like gold to highlight the new imperfections as opposed to hiding them. This forms a thematic backdrop of the project. “Initially I couldn’t get any music done, but the point that I learnt through Kintsugi was that most of the things I was experiencing were lessons that I was unfortunately seeing as curses. So I learned to see the blessings in my situation and that made it into the music.”
The narrative of the EP is driven by sets of short interludes between each track comprising of TV static, the sound of channel-switching and short monologues on various concepts. “I remember seeing something online that outlined the 8 steps of mastery, and that’s why the project has 8 songs. You start with a process of self-evaluation, self-awareness… up until self-mastery. I wanted each track to represent one of those elements.” Together, the songs outline the steps necessary for mending and moving towards a kind of healing.
The music is on the project is as dense and as layered as the concepts with which it deals. Trap and detailed 4/4 rhythms form the skeleton of the music, but while trap has receded, folding towards itself with more and more distant and sparse motifs, Kintsugi is rich with harmonies and melodies, laying a thick blanket of orchestration over the pounding drums. Trap’s faster tempo also pushes Sipho’s vocal deliveries to a higher technical level, while the few slower moments allow his capable singing voice to shine.
‘Blessed’, the emotional centrepiece of the project, leans even less on his rapping, relying more on instrumental breaks, guest vocals from Yum Yuck and emotional gut punches in the sparse verses. “Every challenge is a blessing in a way. If I didn’t have the issues with my dad or certain aspects of myself that I didn’t like, then I would have become the perfect imperfect Sipho that I am today.”
Expanding on this point, Sipho mentions that he “started making music again with the help of my friends and my manager at the time, who helped me to get access to a laptop and some recording equipment, and I just started recording songs.” This collaborative approach also defined how the content came out, with Sipho stepping away from his all-hand approach to letting musicians like Yum Yuck contribute to the instrumentation.
The music was all complete before Cape-based indie record label Rude World came on board to help market and distribute it – a point Sipho makes sure to labour. Overall in our conversation, he managed to ask me several times whether I had listened to the whole project, while not even giving a passing thought to asking whether or not I liked it.
“With Coming of Age I had a project I thought was dope and I wanted everyone to hear it, cos I cared what everyone was thinking… with Kintsugi the approach was totally different. I try to focus less on what people want to hear from me, but starting from the position of making something that inspires me and something that would resonate well with me”
The project isn’t perfect, leaning too hard on influences in moments, but it was never meant to be. If coming of age stories deal with protagonists dealing with their places in a cold world, Kintsugi sees its protagonist dealing with internal worlds, which had grown just as treacherous. In the end the project is also not naive enough to add any finality to its ending, this time around.
“I don’t know if there can ever be a sense of resolution. What I learned from the 8 Steps of Mastery is that it’s not just one step and you’re done. Every single day we’re trying to improve ourselves,” says Sipho.
What this means for him next, is mastering a live show with the help of his new label, and releasing a short film and music videos for the music.
Stream Kintsugi from all major platforms, and follow Sipho The Gift for more info on future content.