From Houston screw to UK grime, from the West Coast to the East Coast to the crawl of the Dirty South, hip-hop — possibly more so than other musical forms — is deeply rooted in geography. While there are the occasional exceptions (to quote a million surprised forum-crawlers: “9th Wonder is from North Carolina? What?“), this seems most directly a result of the intensely collaborative nature of the culture — a culture where MCs meet locally to freestyle over beats and cuts from area DJs, where the average album booklet contains list after list of collaborators and producers. Dizzee Rascal probably wouldn’t sound quite the same if he grew up eating grits, nor Lil’ Jon if he were raised in South America. Given the album’s title — Sénégal — such ties to place are inevitable and unmistakable, but as becomes clearer with every listen, Wagëblë’s music is colored by geography in the best ways possible.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Africa has been, time and again, essentially screwed over and misused by the rest of the world. From the most obvious examples, the slavery or the European conquest, to the forced partitioning of the Berlin Conference or the violent aftermath of decolonization, the history of Africa is one of almost unbelievable turmoil that continues even to this day. While Senegal itself has been relatively peaceful in recent years, the country, like many, is still riddled with poverty. Wagëblë don’t dodge this bullet, they bite it – their music openly embraces the realities of daily life (Wagëblë translates to “from the ghetto”), refusing to gloss over the truths of life in the ghetto while still offering a positive outlook with hope for improvement. While they’ve become minorly controversial in some circles — as with just about any group that becomes a “school of life” to its fans, especially one not shy with its profanity — with Sénégal, Wagëblë solidify their standing at the top of the Senegalese hip-hop game and make a strong bid for a larger foothold in the international market.
I’ll confess this right up front: my Wolof is a bit more than rusty (try “nonexistent”), so I don’t have the best idea of what many of the lyrics mean. I get the English and some of the French, but no, just about nothing said in Wolof. But while I don’t know what they’re saying much of the time, and (unless you know some languages I don’t) you probably won’t either, what makes Wagëblë so great is that you won’t feel like you need to. Strip away the meanings, strip away all time and place — you can even take away the socially-conscious message if you want to — and what is left is four gifted young souls and their love affair with music. Four bright but weary voices, rising and falling in a sputtering of drums and achy emotion. Where the individual syllables lose discrete meaning, the general passion still carries through — these young men cry for their country, these young men bleed for their country, but through it all they keep an eye to the future where things just might change for the better. All this for an album recorded over two weeks in rapper Eyewitness’s parents’ home in the ghetto of Thiaroye, battling “noise, interruptions and power failures”, but never giving up or souring in perspective as all too commonly happens in such hip-hop stories.
This is further backed up by solid production from Norwegian producer Rumblin, who provides a fitting canvas of sound for the vocalists to color: from the ominously raucous, Dre-reminiscent banger “Todjëll Gëb” to the distinctive instrumentation of first single “Babylon”, the beats manage to match the tone of the words almost perfectly. The horns on “Door War” make Wagëblë’s frustration almost palpable, but for every burst of near-anger comes a thoughtful reconsideration like the smooth pianos of “Definition”. On the climax and last true song, “Larmes d’Afrique”, Rumblin backs contemplative poetry from Eyewitness and Waterflow with a slow glissando of a beat that builds beautifully into and out of the horns of the Asta Busingye chorus.
The album-closing outro, a collage of shout-outs from friends, collaborators and contemporaries, wraps it all up on a positive note — Wagëblë have come a long way, and they seem poised now more than ever before to make their biggest impact yet on the worldwide music scene. The chances are good that they’ll never really blow up, but you get the sense that even if they don’t, they’ll still be here, repping the truth of life and spreading the love. Because their album may be Sénégal, but their emotion, and their passion, are universal.