[7 December 2009]
Music like Shafiq Husayn’s is not easily digested. Take, for example, Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love, which was his last album as part of Sa-Ra. Though it was a fine affair all around, it was marred by weak lyrics and vocals. Sonically, though, it was nothing short of brilliant, filled with lush, vibrant, and heady instrumentation. All of that combined for a somewhat disappointing listen, if only because it left you wishing the words coming through your speakers could match such fantastic production. These are the guys who played in a big role in making Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah: Part One (Fourth World War) a gorgeous, refreshing masterpiece. Okay, maybe not a masterpiece, but it was damn close.
For some Badu followers, though, her latest effort was a bit too spacey and difficult to stomach. The cause of that was not her singing or lyrics, both of which were on-point from start to finish. But it likely had to do with Sa-Ra’s intensely heady production, which has shown immense progress since then. Sa-Ra took its style and sound to another level on Nuclear Evolution. Everything about the trio got a hell of a lot denser. The drums still knocked, but they moved to the realm of sounding almost off-beat or, perhaps more fitting, as if they were lost in space. For comparison’s sake, think of the drums on Flying Lotus’s more recent work, especially last year’s fantastic Los Angeles. Put aside his galactic loops and narrow in on his use of percussion. There might be a steady beat in there somewhere beneath the layers of trudging-through-the-mud bass, snares, and cymbals. But when they all come together? It’s almost like being punched in the temple by a drum machine.
And that vertigo-inducing punch to the head is very much present in Shafiq En’ A-Free-Ka. The dizzying percussion runs rampant like a pack of kids let loose in a Toys “R” Us, each one shrieking at different moments as he or she finds the perfect toy. It might sound like a ridiculous or insane comparison, but one listen to any track on here and you’ll get it. The separate drum hits hardly resonate as a unit. It’s more like you’re hearing one kit placed on top of another. For some, this is going to be a difficult element of Husayn’s music to comprehend. Hell, even the most open-minded, progressive listeners will need to spin this several times before they can fully digest just the drums. By that point, some of you are likely to fall by the wayside, as you probably did with the aforementioned FlyLo record. And it’s understandable. The message of this breed of music is not easily heard. It’s purposely crumpled up and buried under layer upon layer of noise, drums, keyboards, guitars, bass, synthesizers, and whatever the hell else is in the mix.
But when you actually hear that message? Whether it’s your first, third, or tenth listen, look out, because you might just get addicted to Shafiq En’ A-Free-Ka. And just as its title implies, many of the tracks on here either flirt with or fully incorporate the sounds of Africa. But it’s not done in a way that’s overpowering or culture-vulturing. Husayn implores the essence of the continent through use of that aforementioned percussion and chant-like vocals, both of which are heard throughout the Afro-beat genre. This album, if you need the comparison, plays more like an Afro-beat record made with the help of psychedelics—lots of ‘em. Perhaps some of those were laced in Husayn’s joints, which he relishes so lovingly on the playful “Cheeba”, featuring vocalist Bilal.
This album is more than just a trip to a continent. It’s a cohesive (yes!) trip to Husayn’s celebration of freeing one’s spirit, as referenced by “Ka” in the title, which means “the spirit” in the Kemetic Orthodox church. And you can hear him begin to free the spirit of others on the chilling track “All Dead”. It’s a haunting, burning piece of music that kills off materialistic items ranging from the television to the Jheri curl. The track then bleeds into an uplifting, almost-kitschy take on the Beatles. The horns-laden “Major Heavy”, which features vocals from Count Bass D and Sonny Oates, is akin to a celebration of those souls freed in “All Dead”. A similar celebratory vibe is heard on cuts like the album-opening “Nirvana”, a throbbing anthem filled with chants of “Watch out! We run the world!” and brilliant horns. Other highlights include the one-two punch of “Le’Star” and “Egypt”. It’s thrilling to hear how the child-like repetition of “Le’Star” transitions into aural bliss before spilling into a bass-heavy finger-snapper such as “Egypt”. “The U.N. Plan” is another standout with soaring, sometimes-warped vocals and relentless marching-band snares.
Shafiq Husayn might alienate some listeners with this, his first solo opus, but no one can deny the magic he has created on here. Yes, it’s dense. Yes, it’s repetitive. But, damn it, Shafiq En’ A-Free-Ka is a musical revolution. It’s a progressive take on R&B, a genre that so desperately needs rekindling. Let’s just hope others follow in suit and carry this newly lit torch.