The Very Best — Malawi-born vocalist Esau Mwamwaya and the London-based DJ duo Radioclit — debuted in 2008 with a free mixtape whose title simply proclaimed who this group, exactly, is: Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are The Very Best. The tape sampled everyone from Michael Jackson to MIA, ABBA to Architecture in Helsinki, mashing up Radioclit’s exuberant production with Mwamwaya’s ultra-exuberant vocals. The results had many listeners convinced that, well, maybe the group knew what they were doing with that title, after all. When the official debut LP, Warm Heart of Africa (2009), dropped a year later, Mwamwaya and Radioclit’s boasting seemed vindicated once and for all. If you haven’t heard that record, please do yourself a favor — it is difficult to remember another album that sounds like pure joy pressed into vinyl or coded into megabytes.
Two years later, Radioclit has broken up, but Mwamwaya returns with one-half the duo, Johan Karlberg, for another free mixtape, Super Mom. Like most mixtapes, the record offers a blend of new material and reinterpreted, sampled music. And, like most mixtapes, it also offers mixed results. When the highs come, they’re as high as Apollo 11 on pure cocaine. The title track alone makes your download time worthwhile, with Mwamwaya laying down one of his best and breeziest vocal melodies over Karlberg’s synthesized steel drums and brass. It’s a rush, all three months of summer compressed into three minutes and 27 seconds. The mixtape’s closer, “Mama”, hits just as hard, with a sunshine, Nintendo-synth breakdown that could part the clouds over the Pacific Northwest. As ever, you won’t know what Mwamwaya’s saying unless you speak Chichewa, the native tongue of Malawi, but that’s part of The Very Best’s trick: hearing Mwamwaya’s superb melodies and strong voice in a foreign tongue has the effect of turning his words into a patchwork of unadulterated joie de vivre.
Karlberg shows a strong effort as well, occasionally shying away from Radioclit’s trademark maximalism for more groove-centric, repetitive beats. “Ndekha” wouldn’t sound out of place in an LA house club, and “Miracle” sounds less like its copping from Africa than from the Middle East. Similarly, “Secousse” sounds less likely to be name-dropped by Vampire Weekend than Daft Punk. Karlberg deserves credit for trying new sounds, but he sacrifices melodic energy for dancehall hypnotism. In other words, these tracks are club-ready, but they’ll be just as lost in the haze of the room as most of the other fare on the DJ’s playlist.
The sampled material often fares even worse, sounding half-baked or only partially reheated. No one could blame Macc Mello for paling in comparison to Kanye West and Pusha T on The Very Best’s version of “Runaway”, but Mwamwaya and Karlberg don’t tinker with the track enough to give him much to work with. Similarly, watching the group have a go at LCD Soundsystem’s “I Can Change” and Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” proves entertaining on first spin, but neither attempt tries to improve much on the originals — you’ll just go back to listening to your old records. The notable exception is notable, indeed: Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” gets pumped up with even more cinematic drama with the addition of Mwamwaya’s liquid voice.
Still, even when Super Mom drags, it entertains. It goes without saying you can’t beat the price of admission. Besides, the first mixtape laid the foundation for a remarkable proper LP, so here’s to hoping Super Mom will do the same. Don’t put it past these guys for a second.