Honest Labour by Space Afrika
Thought-provoking Ambient and a manifesto for our volatile times
It's been more than seven years since old friends Joshua Inyang and Joshua Reid started making music together as Space Afrika. In that short time they've explored, to great acclaim, Dub Techno, Deep House and various strains of Ambient. The path from their 2014 debut album Above The Concrete / Below The Concrete to new album Honest Labour appears distant (as one may expect from any forward-thinking artist, their sound should evolve and mature with with each successive release) but key factors in their approach to music making continue to burn bright, like their roots in deep electronic music and the practice of underpinning their art with personal and politically-charged ideas.
2018's Somewhere Decent To Live album was a pivotal breakthrough as it introduced their luxurious take on Ambient to a wider fanbase with an approach that married ghostly synth loops and abstract vocal samples in a delicious Dub design. And then, like a precursor to Honest Labour, last year's mixtape hybtwibt? (inspired by the Black Lives Matter social movement) revealed further their ambition to say something profound in their work. By folding meaningful dialogue into their edgy instrumentals they were able to document their take on the (so far) tumultuous 20's. hybtwibt? (have you been through what I’ve been through?) was based on material from the duo's broadcast on NTS Radio and the cut-together sequencing indicated their next focus: to chronicle their multi-threaded story with diverse narrators and varied perspectives, all sympathetically tied to their music.
Mixtapes. Let's quickly talk about mixtapes.
The second you change the language to mixtape, nobody cares a voice asserts on Joy Orbison's new “mixtape” album. Modeselektor also called their new album a mixtape. Less pressure calling it a mixtape? Others (like nthng, Actress, SAULT) have released albums this year that sounded like mixtapes. But wait, what exactly is a mixtape? In the past mixtapes were actual cassette tapes compiled by rappers and DJs to rapidly showcase ideas to a new audience. These albums are not mixtapes in that sense. What we're looking at is a compilation of material, varied in style and length (we're talking instrumentals, songs, spoken word, field recordings, experimental sounds, skits) cut together faux-crudely in a bedroom-tape-copied-off-the-radio style. They're well produced. What they're not are unfinished ideas awaiting further development. I prefer to think of them as mixtape albums™.
Taking its name from Inyang's Nigerian family tree, Honest Labour is a mixtape album. It's got conversations about the meaning of love on Indigo Grit and the (somewhat drawn-out) discourse on Preparing the Perfect Response ~, varied guest perspectives, in song and sampled form, there's even a nod to Burial on <>. Glueing the disparate "ideas" together are the many glorious Ambient compositions, like Ladybird Drone, LV, Like Orchids and the 43 second sound bite Noise Sweet. Every track is imbued with their distinctive grainy sound. It's real. Like a book of Raymond Carver short stories, it's incumbent on the listener to piece together the whole picture. Proper art.
Opening the album in their recognisable Ambient manner, yyyyyy2222 charms with its delirious downtempo vibe and a haunted vocal-echo luring us in. And this is repeated across most of the 19 tracks with a variety of treatments and sounds, including strings, guitars, field recordings, monologues, rapping and singing. Expect the unexpected. Lancashire artist and MC Blackhaine's contribution stands out, his Northern-accent rap adding suitable grit to a story about a tough, grey life with few opportunities (the video is well worth a watch). Guest (yes, that's her artist name) graces a couple of tracks, her angelic vocal tempering the underlying downbeat vibe. My favourite is U featuring kinseyLloyd, his measured spoken rap accompanied by rainy street sounds and a backwards beat brings a sense of doomed acknowledgement of our present sorry state; epitomising the album as a whole. Closing out proceedings, the collaboration with HforSpirit offers a spirit of uplift with emotional strings and a joyous minor melody.
We will inevitably look back at this time in our lives with grim memories about corrupt governments, tyranny and social movements bringing people together. And albums like this will be important reference points.