The Very Best quietly debuted with a self-titled mixtape in 2008, quickly followed by their 2009 debut, Warm Heart of Africa. Buoyed by guest spots from M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Warm Heart of Africa showcased a unique blend of traditional and modern African sounds blended with Western dance music. The album received wide acclaim online and via the usual music publications, which in turn generated anticipation for the group’s follow up. Dropping this week, that follow up has arrived in the form of MTMTMK. While a few of the album’s tracks do shine as brightly as the group’s first effort, much of the album fails to generate the same level of originality or excitement.
Mostly, MTMTMK suffers from imbalance. Warm Heart of Africa delicately incorporated Western and African styles to create a compelling pan-continental gumbo that made the album stand out among its indie peers. Yet MTMTMK frequently veers too far to the Western side of the equation, showcasing hooks and production techniques that echo contemporary American dance music cliches rather than particularly unique sounds. This is most apparent on tracks such as “Rumbae,” “Yoshua Alikuti,” “Come Alive,” and “Rudeboy.” Musically, this capitulation to current US dance trends takes a clearly talented vocalist (Esau Mwamwaya) and inserts him into fairly uninteresting songs. The result is a lack of fulfillment for the listener, a nagging, knowing sense that “they could have done better.”
Still, there are a handful of tracks on MTMTMK that sound more consistent with Warm Heart of Africa, which is to say that they get it right. “Moto,” “Bantu,” “I Wanna Go Away,” “Nkango,” and the infectious ”Kondaine” are a reminder of what made The Very Best’s previous work so damn interesting – a seamless blend of the instrumentation, structure, composition, and performance elements culled from two rather distinct musical cultures.
Unfortunately, the MTMTMK’s explicitly commercial tracks overshadow these more earnest offerings, marring the album as a whole. Who knows why The Very Best took such a turn. Perhaps it’s a conscious effort at broadening audience appeal, perhaps it’s a product of Hugo’s Radioclit compadre DJ Tron bowing out of the project, perhaps it was an earnest evolutionary step from the band’s perspective. Regardless, MTMTMK feels somewhat empty of the art and passion that was so prominent on Warm Heart of Africa, making it fairly inessential summer listening.
Check out the video for “Kondaine” (feat. Seye) below: