Vampire Weekend might have popularized the use of Afropop flourishes to characterize otherwise whitebread pop music, but plenty of other artists have employed the trend in other genres, from Yeasayer’s psych-rock and Tanlines’ tropical electronica to M.I.A. and her dub-infused hip-hop. African-born singer Esau Mwamwaya essentially inverts that phenomenon, his traditional Malawaian sound acting as the core around which various electronic, hip-hop, and other Western-oriented genres are centered. His partnership with British producer Radioclit, the Very Best, has thus been a hit with the indie crowd, providing an authentic, glowing worldbeat infusion for his collaborations with Santigold, the Ruby Suns, and Ezra Koenig.
But the celebratory warmth Mwamwaya exhibited with those artists and on the Very Best’s 2009 debut, Warm Heart of Africa, now seems a distant memory, especially in light of how decidedly un-fun follow-up MTMTMK is. Stuffed with manufactured Euro-pop, stale preset beats, Auto-Tuned vocals, and other assorted fallbacks, the album lacks both the harmonic precision and jubilant, vista-inspired mood that defined Mwamwaya’s modern rendition of Malawi music on Warm Heart of Africa.
The album starts misleadingly strong with the fuzzy “Adani,” one of the few tracks where Mwamwaya balances all of his contrasting influences into a glistening anthem of sun, sex, and exultation. But MTMTMK quickly strays from the ease of organic, traditional sounds and heads into a synthetic club atmosphere. Much of the music here is overstuffed filler, a thumping, glittery blend that regulates its pastoral African qualities to the background. The schizophrenic “Rudeboy,” for example, is a lame exposition on the Rhianna hit of the same name, presenting a jarring competition between paint-by-number synths, African-inspired electro-percussion, and suffocating rave noise. The rest of MTMTMK follows suit, offering track after track of gaudy, clumsy ingredients better suited for the type of sideshow pop typical of Nicki Minaj or Katy Perry.
Perhaps most saddening of all, Mwamwaya himself is much less jovial and exuberant this time around, mostly abandoning the breezy howls of his debut’s standouts, like “Chalo” and “Yalira,” for something far more clinical and bland. As the charismatic, idiosyncratic heart of the Very Best, it’s frustrating to hear Mwamwaya pass over his strengths in favor of taking up the role of a rote pop singer. Then again, when a very Chris Brown-like guest vocalist intones, “No matter how it goes, I’m gonna fuck you right from your head to your toes,” on “Rumbae,” it’s clear that the Very best has Westernized their sound so much that they’ve become nothing more than a glorified boy band.