Thursday, October 23, 2014

album review: 'black star elephant' by nico & vinz

So here's a fun challenge: name an African musical act. (Die Antwoord) Okay, now name one that actually has charted or has a hope in hell of charting in America. If you start looking through the Billboard charts, you'll find that that list is pretty damn small. Music from around the world already has limited representation on the American charts outside of Canada and the UK, and from Africa you can change the qualifier from 'limited' to 'barely any'.

And yet this year that changed with an act that burst onto the scene with eclectic instrumentation, a decidedly unique textured sound that was unlike anything else on the charts, and an uncanny knack for lodging itself in our subconscious. And of course, the act I'm talking about is KONGOS, a South African-based act that dropped their debut album in 2012 and it took well over a year and a half for their biggest hit 'Come With Me Now' to crash onto our charts, particularly in Canada where it broke the Top 10.

But I can bet that was not the act the majority of you were thinking about, was it? No, if you asked what music landed on the charts that had a decidedly 'African' vibe, you would have said Nico & Vinz and their song 'Am I Wrong'... and really, you'd have been half-right. Nico Sereba is Norwegian-Ivorian and Vincent Dery is Norwegian-Ghanaian, and it's clear that they draw much of their influences from African worldbeat music, but the song has more than a few hallmarks of their Norwegian synthpop background as well, which gives it a decidedly odd vibe from a production standpoint and a song that I've been trying to make sense of for months now. In other words, I had to know more, so I made it a priority to check out their first credited album as Nico & Vinz, Black Star Elephant. What did I find?

Well, I wasn't expecting this, that's for damn sure. I'm not sure what I was expecting from NIco & Vinz's Black Star Elephant, but I got was something you don't often see: a full narrative-driven pop album, complete with interludes and character arcs. And yet it's such a distinctly formed musical entity that I'm at a bit of a loss at how to describe it - it's got the basic narrative arc of Beck's Morning Phase, the broadly sketched focus of Tove Lo's Queen Of The Clouds, and a sound reminiscent of both Europop, hip-hop and worldbeat music. And you know, I kind of dug it. Not that I'd consider this record great or a classic, but I can see the appeal and definitely get why people would want me to take a deeper look.

Now let me start with both the most fascinating and most frustrating element of this album: production and instrumentation. It's a record that feels distinctly between the incredibly slick, hook-driven polish of Europop and the more richly organic African music. Now in terms of production alone, these two don't really fit together - one being a genre defined by its texture, the other defined by its lack of it - and I'll be the first to say that I'm not the biggest fan of Nico & Vinz's extremely polished approach, with distinctly modern synthesizers and pianos, brassy horns, classical strings arrangements, and drenching the reggae- and funk-inspired guitar tones in reverb, especially when set up against drum progressions that have a lot more texture. And yet the mix still manages to have a lot more warmth than most slick Europop, mostly thanks to the thicker horns that form a subtle foundation across the mix and more acoustic elements, most of which have a ton of texture. The strumming and percussion on 'Last Time', 'Miracles', 'Another Day', 'In Your Arms', the distinctive African chants on 'My Melody', 'Imagine' and the closer 'Imaa Imaa', the French spoken word interlude on 'People', hell, even the harmonica piece on 'Homeless', these pieces lend of a lot of character to the songs and really highlight how strong some of the melody lines are underneath, especially on the 'Am I Wrong' reprise 'Thought I Knew', which is probably my favourite song on the album, because with the surprisingly strong strings line, prominent guitar lick, and the great melodic interplay with the piano, it shows just how well the two genres can fuse.

Of course, one of the other big factors is Nico & Vinz themselves. I'll admit there are moments where I feel there's a hint too much vocal production, but for the most part they step up to the microphone with a fair amount of charisma and presence, especially with Vinz's more soulful delivery. I wouldn't say on the rap verses either of them are stellar, but they do okay. What surprises me is that they don't bring together more vocal harmonies - sure, when they have separate vocal lines they have solid interplay, but they could have done a little more here. Part of it might be is that their vocals are very smooth and pop-friendly, almost reminiscent of boy band material on songs like 'In Your Arms' - which isn't precisely a bad thing, but they could have done more with it.

But now onto what I find fascinating about this album: lyrics and themes. I mentioned Beck's Morning Phase with regards to the narrative, and like that album, the loose structure of this story is our narrator trying to deal with a failing relationship. But instead of the personal drama that underscored that record, Nico & Vinz opt for a spiritual journey, to delve into their own lives and try to get a handle on what they really want. And what I like about this album is the lyrical framing: 'Am I Wrong' upon a deeper reading can come across as awfully presumptuous of the girl's feelings, but in the larger context of the album it makes sense because our narrator is confused, desperate, and a little clueless. And that framing continues throughout the rest of the album - there are moments where he backslides like the darker verse on 'My Melody', telling a girl not to fall in love with him because he's only after sex on 'Runnin'', and the moment where he tries to get her to open up on 'Imagine' by showing his own vulnerability. And what I really like about this album is the ultimate conclusion - after all the soul-searching, we come to 'Thought I Knew', where he thought he was sure of his feelings but now is realizing that perhaps they need to walk different paths, at least for now, which is punctuated after his mad rush to admit his love by the mournful strings. This acceptance comes through in the next song 'When The Day Comes' in the lyric 'Today I will fight for me / today you will fight for you'.

And then there's the ending... and here's where it gets a little less defined. The interlude 'Kokadinye' is derived from the Swahili word 'koka', meaning 'saved', and is then followed by 'Imaa Imaa', which translates from Arabic as 'striving', and the two paired seems to imply a religious or spiritual focus to the final song, finding inner peace, which the exultant tone seems to match. But the second verse of that song implies finally finding that soulmate, whereas previous songs imply a certain distance between them at the end. It's an odd moment and ties back to probably my biggest issue with this album: the musical framing doesn't always match the lyrical framing. Much of the instrumentation of this record is very typical of Europop - lightweight, upbeat, accessible, not really concerned with heavier subject matter, and for a deeper spiritual journey, even despite the interludes that punctuate how important that journey is, it's not framed with that gravitas. And sure, it's charming, but when you have songs like 'Runnin' where some girl is told not to fall in love and keep running from this guy, and yet it's framed with this peppy upbeat song, it comes across as condescending to the girl's feelings. And sure, I get the feeling the narrator is supposed to come across as clueless, but compare to, say, Hozier's 'Someone New' where the condescension is intended to paint the narrator as a terrible person - with NIco & Vinz, it just rings a little hollow. And the frustrating fact is that they are capable of some nuance here: 'Miracles' and 'People' are songs that glorify working hard to get success, and 'Another Day' actually gets political for two verses in talking the world's darkness and their struggles... and then ends without a real climax after just over two minutes. It almost seems like the track was stopped before things could get too 'real', and I'll say it, I wanted to see more in that direction.

But then again, that wasn't Nico & Vinz's intention - they were looking to tell a lightly sketched morality fable about finding inner peace, knowing oneself, and discovering what you really want in a relationship, and for the most part, they delivered that. With every repeated listen, I do find myself wishing for more texture and flavour to compliment the melodies, and I do wish the album carried more weight, and I'll whole-heartedly admit this album might carry more weight if there is cultural context that I have missed. But for me, I'm feeling a very strong 6/10 and definitely a recommendation. I'm not going to promise Black Star Elephant by Nico & Vinz will stick with you, but I do think you'll remember it, so check it out.


  1. "name an African musical act"


    "that actually has charted or has a hope in hell of charting in America"

    What do I win? :D

    1. That song charted because of Shakira and constant airplay thanks to the World Cup - so while you're technically right, no prize for you.

    2. Gosh darn it - better luck to me next time I hope!

      (Oddly enough, I've actually never heard of Die Antwoord ... )