A slam-bang dance pop album of the first order, MTMTMK is technically an Africa-meets-Western-pop hybrid, because The Very Best is comprised of a Malawian singer who met a Swedish producer in London. (A French producer recently left the group.) But this album feels more seamless than a mashup. If it weren’t for Esau Mwamwaya singing half his lyrics in the Chewa language, several of these songs would slide right into American radio playlists, and they’d frequently be the best songs there. MTMTMK is like a Western pop album that’s decided to suss out all the Africanisms inherent in Western pop.
For instance, most of the album’s beats are derived from the Afro-Cuban clave rhythm, which shape-shifts and echoes out of music across the world — highlife, reggaeton, Bo Diddley, “Pass That Dutch”, Zumba workouts, and I even hear a large-scale implied clave in the melody of Britney’s “Till the World Ends”. The Very Best producer Johan Hugo messes with this beat thoroughly. On the album opener “Adani”, he flips it and strips it down, his kick drum cutting through gobs of distorted duck calls and what seems to be the looped cackle of Ozzy Osbourne from “Crazy Train”, though nobody will confirm this. A clacky little snare takes up the beat on the irresistible friendship celebration “Kondaine”, which features kindred musical spirit Seye. In the single “Yoshua Alikute”, the clave beat moves from drums to synth and adopts a whole different character — it’s sexier and smoother, as though twirling you around the dance floor with a rose in its teeth. Hugo accordingly inserts whoooshing sounds.
Hugo and Mwamwaya also cross musical borders by playing with song structure. They still use verses and choruses, but they order them in unpredictable ways, or they keep adding stuff and varying their material. “Come Alive”, featuring Parisian DJ Mo Laudi, is a good example. It starts with a chanted introduction, some guy repeating non-English words over a synth ostinato, and then Mwamwaya sings a subdued verse that explodes into a jubilant gang chorus of multitracked Mwamwayas. After a brief interlude there’s a second verse, unrelated to the first — it’s longer, higher, and has a completely different melody. A big pre-chorus leads into another chorus, after which the chorus backing music keeps playing, loudly, while our intro chant man ends the song, sounding breathless.
Not that this is some radical explosion of song form; a song like Kanye West’s “Mercy” feels much more unprecedented and ungainly. But like “Mercy”, like much dance pop, and like an unpredictable highlife or juju song, The Very Best weakens our sense of narrative expectation, instead focusing on each euphoric musical element as it occurs — all while tossing around clave beats and singing in Chewa. It’s as though they’re saying, “You know all that stuff you love about pop music that’s not Tin Pan Alley storytelling? Here’s where it comes from.” (Though of course, Afropop genres have swallowed up plenty of Western influences; that’s a different story.)
Chief among their euphoric musical elements is Mwamwaya’s voice. It’s high and clear, though not incredibly distinctive — when K’Naan shows up on the glorious “We OK”, his timbre and broad vowel shapes immediately set him apart. But what Mwamwaya lacks in distinctiveness, he makes up in versatility. He sings “Kondaine” with playful melisma and vibrato, sounding a little like Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, his duet partner on The Very Best’s 2009 single “Warm Heart of Africa”. (How’s that for cross-cultural influence?) But his performance on the triumphal “Moto” is all brawny heroism, while on “I Wanna Go Away” he transforms into a bratty schoolkid. Producer Hugo really drags his partner’s voice through the electronic ringer, too. Mwamwaya’s overdubbed harmonies add warmth to individual lines and grandeur to choruses, and his autotuned voice adds a whole lot of sleaze to the salacious “Rumbae”, cowritten with Taio Cruz.
Hugo fills MTMTMK with delightful production setpieces. He changes textures several times within individual songs, and he pumps climaxes full of more elements than you can count. The album flags a little at the end before “We OK” sends listeners off with a hug, but even then, Hugo comes up with fascinating sonic combinations. His most radical departure is the mid-album downtempo palate cleanser “Bantu”, which features Amadou, Mariam, Baaba Maal, and Jose Hendrix stretching out on some beatless drone rock. Hugo and Mwamwaya add little beyond some electronic blips and, I assume, studio-processed atmosphere, but the tune still fits their Africa-for-Western-ears vibe. Global musical community is The Very Best’s ideal, if only because it’s the path to really cool noise.