We’re back with another round of our year-end music review series. 2021 was a breathless year that left very little time for stillness as tragedies, events and our lives kept chugging along within the pandemic. The music industry was no different as it unleashed massive volumes of music that were impossible to keep up with. Amapiano alone felt like its music was on an unending conveyor belt as more alternative genres continued to pick up steam. The result of which is the most sonically diverse year of local music that I’ve experienced in my adult life. Next Gen Greats’ Songs of 2021 is here to document some of the highlights that left an indelible mark, on us particularly, in another 3-part series. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here. A playlist with songs from all three parts can be found here, it also features song that made the shortlist that I really enjoyed but just couldn’t write on because of time and mental capacity; 70 songs were already enough of an undertaking so without further ado here’s our favourite 21 songs of 2021.
Disclaimers: 1) For the purposes of this article we’ve kept the choices to one selection per artist in a leading role with the exception of work that’s credited in a group or collaborative body of work. We stress that these are personal favorites and not necessarily what we think are the most representative songs of the year. If an artist dropped both solo work and group/collaborative work in the same time span, we’ve counted each effort as separate, ie this consideration would apply to acts like The Scorpion Kings or Adrienne Foo & Phiwo who dropped a collaborative tape etc… 2) Only works that were released between December 1 2020 – November 30th 2021 were considered; any December 2021 releases will fall part of 2022’s list.
Presenting Our Top 21 [Listed alphabetically, not in order of ranking]
Anisixabisanga – Msaki featuring The Brother Moves On [produced by Msaki and Neo Muyanga]
Our top 21 kicks off with an intense piece of jazz-fusion from one of our nations most beloved storytellers, Msaki’s Anisixabisanga. Released on the ninth anniversary of the Marikana massacre, Anisixabisanga is a protest song that finds Msaki incensed as she meditates on the song’s title as a thought; which translates to ‘You have not kept us in high regard’. Sonically, this song is an act of tension. Anisixabisanga literally launches with an extended guitar solo supported by a morose horn section, the instruments create a feeling of restlessness that only subsides so Msaki’s rage can replace it. This relayed dance of intensity continues to build throughout the song and with every baton the intensity grows larger and hotter as more instruments begin to wail; often in tandem with each other. Msaki continuously switches between hurling insults at our former president and laying her frustrations bare of the wreckage he has caused as she continues to assert how we haven’t been respected and that he’s holding us back. Msaki delivers some of her most impassioned singing in this song. The back and forth exchanges between her and Brother Moves On within the song’s bridges are stupefying, as Brother Moves On provides her with enough support to passionately riff as she pleases. Simply put, Anisixabisanga is some of the most climactic music I’ve heard in this young decade and is currently my favourite diss track to come out of 2021.
Asibe Happy – The Scorpion Kings featuring Ami Faku [produced by Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa]
Our next pick finds us moving from fuming frustration to simmering satisfaction with an amapiano love song; Asibe Happy. DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small are supernovas whose current dominance on music is unlike anything I’ve witnessed in my lifetime locally. Their presence on music in inescapable and their reach only seems to be expanding so it feels fitting that such a triumphant song would come out as one of their defining hits within this period. Written and performed by Ami Faku, Asibe Happy feels content and comfortable. It’s the satisfaction of enjoying a love that has matured in-spite of life’s challenges. This is a love that’s already found its groove and is simmering on and that’s exactly what this production sounds like to me. Ami Faku’s coo-ed style singing feel like meditations against Kabza De Small & DJ Maphorisa’s hypnotic production. It’s warm. The flourishes on the passage between the first verse as it opens for the chorus are subtle but gleefully mesmerizing. Asibe Happy is a satisfied love song that already feels like a standard fitted for weddings, anniversaries and nostalgic moments of reflection. The Scorpion Kings are deep within an imperial phase that currently shows no sign of ending soon and that is why Asibe Happy to me works on two levels. The first being the love song it is but on a more meta level it also feels like a victory lap for these musicians that have defined an era and are enjoying themselves whilst doing it. This is their moment in the sun with music, they’re taking it in and they’re happy.
Fun Fact: DJ Maphorisa is tied with 2 other acts for having the most overall artists entries on this year’s list, with 3 artist appearances. He is also tied for having the most producer credits with 1 other producer, carrying 4 producer credits.
Dead Jungle – Priddy Ugly featuring Blxckie & H-D [produced by Shooterkhumz, Herc Cut The Lights & Wichi1080]
The major sonic shifts continue as we move to our rap collaboration of the year; Priddy Ugly’s searing Dead Jungle. Can we talk about stage-setting for just a second because Dead Jungle‘s production had me gripped from the word go. The song begins with the outside ambience of a storm that’s quickly followed by eerie electric guitar licks, looming of insistent trap hi-hats as wild dog growls lead into barks whilst further in the background the revving of a car engine precedes a window getting broken… I was already primed for audio violence before a single word was uttered, all Priddy Ugly and co. had to do was show up because the production alone invoked the urban western that is Dead Jungle; and these rappers more than delivered. Priddy Ugly enters Dead Jungle‘s chorus with an added base and growl to his voice in a song that explores the ever-present violence that exists within the frays of our society; so ever-present, you’re taught to love it.
Each rapper has their own verse with which to explore the concept. Priddy Ugly explores and questions the systems that breed and perpetuate this violence; showing how incredible violence can be enacted for contextually trivial things in the jungle. Blxckie cockily wades in with a more personal verse that paints a picture of his upbringing within the jungle, focusing on his pursuit of money through rapping as his sole focus and motivation to getting out of the bleak circumstances he was borne into. H-D’s verse begins with a portrait that shows the impersonal nature of death from violence, and the futility he feels about his ability to change the system before zoning in on his inner-faith and belief in its protection. Dead Jungle is hip-hop that is boisterous in sound, personal in feel and bursting with flare. It is my high-point from one of my favourite hip-hop albums of the year, packed with artists whose work I have a deep appreciation for and most of all, Dead Jungle is a spectral sonic event worth continually revisiting.
Figure Me Out – Nalu [produced by Chenao Nokwedi & Saint Seko]
Our next song feels like listening to joyful and unbridled infatuation; Figure Me Out. Nalu’s Can We Get Lost? is a romantic wonderland that finds her more confident in her sound that’s built on crossover-jazz and pop-soul sonics. Backed by a dreamy acoustic jazz production, Figure Me Out feels like Nalu set out to make an irresistible earworm with this song; delivering one of her best vocal performances to date. Conceptually, Figure Me Out finds Nalu surrendering to the fact that she’s falling in love as she prods her lover to get to know her more. The song is a throwback love fest that really builds its moments with dynamic vocal production and effective song construction. The first verse begins with her asking her partner what burning questions he has about her before revealing the relationship was only meant to be a fling that’s now become something that she wants to surrender to. The verse is intimate enough but it’s the nudging “go”s in the pre-chorus that really amplify the playfulness of her emotions and her desire for more as she unleashes her infatuated chorus. Figure Me Out takes its time and I love the song for it; like how the post-chorus breakdown lulls you before Nalu launches into the second verse with her most impassioned line delivery as she declares: “Lord knows, I’ve been trying to fight this feeling!” Its euphoric. Nalu captures a joy in falling in love with Figure Me Out and it’s simply irresistible.
Read more Nalu related content here.
Impilo yaseSandton – Kweyama Brothers x Mpura featuring Abidoza & Thabiso Lavish [produced by Philani Kweyama & Abidoza]
Yho…. Yeah neh, the next pick went from being one of my favourite aspirational songs of the year to being one of the most affecting pieces of music for completely different reasons, Impilo yaseSandton. Impilo yaseSandton is a story of resilience that finds Mpura wanting to provide for his mother and to thank her for the sacrifices she made in raising their family. Backed by a hynoptic Kweyama production, Impilo yaseSandton is one of the most earnest piano songs that I’ve heard come out and the mixture of Mpura’s raps mixed with Thabiso Lavish’s soulful singing really invoked something that reminded me of Kwaito’s hey day. It’s an aspirational song that really connected me with Mpura’s why by learning about his upbringing and the dream that lives in this song. There’s a sincerity that lives in Mpura’s tone and storytelling that really worked wonders in his music, within piano in general, and that quality is on full display here. When you couple it with the joyful personality that now lives within the captured footage that remains, it really paints a devastating blow of what was lost when he and all the people that were involved in the tragic accident passed away. Impilo yaseSandton is a great song dripped in melancholy that’s only been amplified after the fact and will stay as a a great showcase of a captivating storyteller whose life was too short lived.
Jola – DeMthuda featuring Da Muziqal Chef & Sino Msolo [produced DeMthuda & Da Muziqal Chef]
Keeping with amapiano, my next pick has been my personal favourite amapiano song this past summer; De Mthuda’s Jola. I can’t even call this song a love song more than I can call this a gleeful declaration of something 2022 will bring me. Jokes aside, Jola is a song that lives on its euphoria and vibe. Conceptually, the song finds an excited Sino Msolo breaking the news to a friend that he’s just gotten into a relationship and Msolo is beside himself. This is done over one of the warmest productions that really takes me back to the house music my older sister would play within the early to mid 2000’s. De Mthuda and Da Musiqal Chef really cooked up a sumptuous production that’s giddy, soulful and makes you just want to move. Msolo provides such a winning performance that his excitement is infectious and the warmth of the production only enhances this excitement that you can’t help but get swept up by it. Jola is a feel-good anthem that you can’t help but groove to and lead by a performance you can’t help but root for. It’s a mood-booster and it’s a vibe delivered by one of the pioneering producers currently out and it just came at the right time.
Juju Vudu – Digital Sangoma [produced by Digital Sangoma]
Our train of feel-good, infectious music continues with the afrofusion wonderland that is Digital Sangoma’s Juju Vudu. Digital Sangoma has really created a sonic universe that finds him melding traditionally african sonics with more contemporary/electronic influences. Juju Vudu finds him mixing more traditional afro pop with new-wave synths resulting in a concoction that has no right to sound as good as it does. Conceptually, the song finds Digital Sangoma feeling like he’s been bewitched with juju as a means of explaining the new feelings he has for this girl. Feelings that have him wrapped around her finger. Juju Vudu is a track that simmers with an energy that is honestly transfixing; Digital Sangoma’s crooning often remains at a coo and is incredibly expressive within this range, showcasing smoulder, elation and a restrained sense of wonder. The production has an infectiousness about it that brims the most within the bridges, chorus and post-chorus breakdown. Digital Sangoma creates a listening experience that is familiar yet fresh, that is reminiscent and modern but is truly all his own. I can’t get enough of it. It must be the juju…
Listen to Digital Sangoma’s All That Yazz Feature here.
Lucid Dreams – Monelle featuring IORDN [produced by IORDN]
Monelle is one of my favourite new discoveries of 2021. Her brand of music manages to package extremely raw, alienating and often existential thoughts within really polished and comfortable aesthetics; it’s done so smoothly that it’s almost deceptive. Our pick from her sublime in loathing memory is the intoxicated, existential trip: Lucid Dreams. Lucid Dreams is a song that explores Monelle’s mental state after having taken prescribed medication for her mood disorder and just how alienating the entire experience is. In the chorus, she compares the experience to lucid dreams where she’s unable to decipher what reality is whilst looking for something to tether her to it. Monelle moves in-between having a conversation with us to bouts of existentialism and it is textually a harrowing experience. IORDN provides a quiet storm of intoxication with this production that enhances and amplifies the more inebriated elements of this song whilst lulling the more chaotic feelings that lie under the surface. It’s a spacey and soulful simmer that calls you to get lost in it when mixed with Monelle’s clear and evocative tone. It’s the type of simmer that seamlessly fits with pop-soul torchers like George Michael’s Careless Whisper and Jessie Ware’s Running. Lucid Dreams makes dreadful existentialism feel comforting. It’s heart-rending storytelling under exquisite production. It’s plea is a breathtaking snapshot of anxiety from an honest storyteller that’s going to live with me for years to come.
Mama It’s Bad – Blxckie [produced by London Rhodes Co., Loud Haileer Fourie, Wxvambient & Christer Kobedi]
Blxckie was thee breakthrough moment of 2021. His dominance this year felt like it crept in like a thief in the night despite his gradual rise within Soundcloud’s hip-hop community these past few years. Within this, Blxckie has also established his versatility across multiple genres from R&B and Afropop to his mainstay of Hip-Hop and our pick is the genre-defying ballad that intros his debut album; Mama It’s Bad. Mama It’s Bad begins with an acapella delivery of the song’s refrain that reads, “Oh, mama it’s bad by my side. These niggas said some sh*t, now we mad gotta slide. Don’t even know what to go grab; where’s my knife? All I pray is that at the end I have my life…” This is what we’re immediately thrust into with nothing but Blxckie’s voice and it honestly stands as one of my favourite musical cold opens of all time. Mama It’s Bad is a song that zones us in on Blxckie’s perspective as he paints a portrait of his mental state in this letter to his mother. In some ways, it feels like the more vulnerable counterpart to the boisterous persona that’s shown on the aforementioned Dead Jungle as it allows the cracks beneath to show. Backed by a piano that slowly builds into an orcherstra, Mama It’s Bad is hauntingly beautiful and carries some of Blxckie’s most captivating vocal production. It’s a song that resonates deeply with me as a young adult that’s still trying to forge their own way within a world of unending uncertainty and it’s bad. Blxckie has had an unbelievable year cementing himself as an undeniable musician with limitless potential with what his storytelling can hold. Mama It’s Bad stands as one of his many pieces of gold.
Fun Fact: Blxckie is the only artist to appear twice in our Top 21 with his appearances in Dead Jungle and Mama It’s Bad.
Ndo Mu Wana – Muneyi [produced by Muneyi]
Now I get to talk about my favourite folk singer of current times, Muneyi. The Venda musician captured us last year with his sweeping Vhuludu before releasing his entrancing debut album this year; Makhulu. Our pick is the album’s euphoric 2nd single, Ndo Mu Wana. Now I’m not going to pretend like I know what the song is about, I’ve only presumed Ndo Mu Wana is a love song purely based on how the song feels and because its title loosely translates to: I have found him/her/them. Here’s the thing, Muneyi makes really rich African folk music. He’s also one of the most spell-binding vocalists of this generation and both those things are on full display in Ndo Mu Wana. The folk musician’s signature guitar-playing is accompanied by a jazzier band, most pronounced of which is a smooth saxophone, as he mounts his most comprehensive vocal-performance on Makhulu. It’s masterful. The vocal starts off frank and low-toned in the first verse before releasing a gleeful falsetto as he exclaims “Ende ndo muwana, Fhala ndilani…”, the performance only grows from there as he reveals more colour and intensity to his vocal. Ndo Mu Wana builds one of the most satisfying climaxes as Muneyi’s voice reaches for the heavens whilst supported by propulsive drums, a gradually intensifying saxophone solo and his own soulful harmonies. The musical tension rises to a point where the release of the final chorus is euphoric when you’re living in its moment. Ndo Mu Wana is beautifully crafted music performed by an undeniable voice and sometimes that’s all music needs to be.
Read more Muneyi related content here.
Next2Me – Una Rams featuring Langa Mavuso [produced by Rillo Beats, Segun & Phonikz]
Keeping within the realm of Venda musicians, our next pick is a soul single from the Venda Pop Star; Una Rams. Una Rams is a romantic crooner that released one of the best R&B projects of the year with hold me when it’s cold: a mixtape. hold me when it’s cold: a mixtape doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to R&B, it gives you the classic version but tailored to Una Rams’ image. Next2Me is a bedroom ballad that harkens to the peak eras of quiet storm R&B. It’s a song that finds Una Rams yearning to spend a night with his lover after coming back from a long trip. The romantic crooner recruits premiere soul singer Langa Mavuso for some of the best R&B begging to come out of 2021. I mean it has a chorus with these words, “I want you next to me, desperately, baby please! Won’t you just let me in? Lay with me, stay with me. Darling you’re all I need…” Need I say more? Una Rams approaches his vocal with his usual laid-back energy, which in this setting feels lineal to Keith Sweat and Teddy Pendergrass’ style of sing-talking; and this leaves Mavuso enough to bring all the drama without the song ever feeling overwrought. Next2Me is passionate, classic and enjoyable R&B fun from a crooner who clearly relishes living within these sonics. It’s a winning addition to your current and future romance playlists.
Nothing’s As It Seems – Filah Lah Lah featuring Samuel Miller [produced by Mike Kalombo]
“There’s safety in a selfish state…” Our next selection is a heartbroken duet that feels like autumn; Nothing’s As It Seems. Filah Lah Lah is an artist that makes intimate and revealing music. Her first project, Filahsofy, found us experiencing her navigation of love from its highs to its complication and her sophomore release, We’re Gonna Be Just Fine, feels like its unfortunate sequel that finds her reeling and working through its heartbreak. Our pick is the heart of the record that throws us right into the thick of it with a starting lyric that reads, “Guess you want to know what happened with last week’s Armageddon, the end of an era I could say.” Nothing’s As It Seems finds Filah Lah Lah picking up the pieces as she breathes through the wound of this heartbreak; Samuel Miller is also reeling in his role as the ex in the sole feature of the record. Mike Kalombo’s dreamy production feels like the burning embers of autumn. The bookending saxophone and bright keys brings an air of nostalgia before the full production settles us into a melancholy that just simmers.
Nothing’s As It Seems really brings life to the quiet moments of contemplation that one experiences when alone with Filah Lah Lah and Samuel Miller’s incredibly artful vocal performance. Filah’s light “Aah” that launch the chorus over the couple’s harmonies are so comforting as light piano flourishes breathe hope into the sea of sadness that exists between them. The final verse finds Filah gaining some resolve in accepting the loss of the relationship as she delivers the defining line of the album. The album’s titles appears as a background whisper whilst the foreground affirms the following, “I turn around and realize that there isn’t a thing that I’d change about this. Life is a dream and love isn’t flawless.” Nothing’s As It Seems is musical poetry from one of our finest songbirds. It’s one of the best written songs of the year for my money and serves as a great companion within my prolonged period of isolation… There’s safety in a selfish state.
Osama – Zakes Bantwini featuring Kasango [produced by Zakes Bantwini, Bonga Ntozini & Kasmario Ike Fankis]
“No one knows what it means but it’s provocative… it gets the people going!” Few quotes seem better fitted for trying to describe the next song than the iconic ones delivered by Will Ferrell’s Chazz Michael Michael in Blades of Glory. Zakes Bantwini’s runaway hit of 2021, Osama, is a non-sensical anthem that seemingly proves the power of music and a good melody. I don’t even mean this is a joke because if we’re able to resonate with music in a foreign language then it logically means that we’re able to resonate with gibberish as long as the vocal instrument and melody being used is captivating enough. Sung completely in tongues, Osama is a song that completes this cycle so convincingly that it’s captured many as a spiritual experience, and I get it because it grabbed me too. Osama begins with a relentless synth-riff playing over an insistent bass-drum that knocks like a heart-beat and sensual hi-hats; the effect of which is immediately entrancing. The synth feels like it was ripped straight from the heights of disco, think Donna Summer & Giorgio Moroder, whilst warm keys gradually grow their presence within the foreground as the percussion. Osama is dance music that blends disco, new-wave and house all into a beautiful symphony with the vocals firmly placing that magic in an African context. The whole song is sung in ethereal harmony over melodies that are child-like wonder. You don’t have to be drunk to sing the song’s refrain with undeniable glee because it gets you there all on its own. Osama grabbed me from first listen and really hasn’t loosened its grip since. It was my dance song of the year and is really one of my favourite anthems that’s coming from the resurgence of disco-era sonics. Osama is transcendental and can be pure bliss when the moment hits you.
Pheli, Politics & Passion – Thato Saul [produced by Beatshoven]
“Neighbourhood cycles like a black trap. All of my niggas by grade 11 were dropping the back pack, now they clap back with pistols that blap blap. I chase a plaque with my back pack kick
but this weapon still make you step back quick.” For two years running Thato Saul has been within my top rap moments of the year. In 2020, he shared those honours with Tyson S.T for their collaboration in Peace. This year he solely claims his space with the tour-de-force performance that is Pheli, Politics and Passion. Pheli, Politics and Passion isn’t just a portrait of an individual but an entire lifestyle. A lifestyle and life-cycles painted so vividly that it could honestly serve as the basis of its own film. Backed by a pensive hip-hop soul production, Pheli, Politics and Passion gives three & a half minutes of uninterrupted rap storytelling. There’s no chorus or mid-way instrumental breaks and it’s Thato Saul front-and-centre; the only release comes from the minute long guitar-solo that climaxes and rides out the song.
Pheli, Politics and Passion introduces you to life in Pheli through Thato’s Saul eyes; where the best form of protection you can have is a gun and a relationship with God. It tells the story of well-meaning parents whose best efforts can’t necessarily keep one from the realities of the world that surrounds them. He tells a story of knowing the people who broke into his family home, whilst his mom was there, because he ran in a gang with one of them. How his mother’s trauma wasn’t enough to get him out and even when his family moved out of Pheli, he still found himself running back to the same circles. Thato Saul is sobering, unflinching and matter-of-fact in how he talks about crime and gang culture; it’s not sympathetic nor is it critical, it simply just is. Thato Saul brings you into this world, tells you it’s realities and advises you on how to survive in it. Released in late December 2020, Pheli, Politics and Passion was our first contender for this list and the fact that it’s endured this high for so long is a testament to the mark this portrait has left on me. However harrowing, it’s a slice-of-life snapshot to a reality many South Africans experience just living their lives.
Show Me How – Amarafleur [produced by Buli (From Space) with additional bass from Zwide Ndwandwe]
“Put your heart on me, hear me when I breathe…” are the leading lines to the steamiest song on our entire list of selections. Found as the closing track on Amarafleur’s …And then I stopped caring EP, Show Me How turns all the sensual dials to 10 as she lays out her sexual desires to her partner in this NSFW-romper. Buli (From Space) delivers quiet storm greatness with a production that is spacey, sultry and intimate in sound, Amarafleur is commanding with a strong and smoky vocal that details everything she seeks to experience with this intimate encounter and all her partner has to offer. Show Me How shines in its ability to simmer with in its intimacy; the production and vocal production gradual build in intensity within the verse and flow over into the chorus. It’s bedroom music that doesn’t want to get to overpowering as it builds moments and lives in it. It likes to intoxicate with its flourishes and is all the more satisfying for it. Show Me How is steamy neo-soul that grows richer with every listen. If you want a lesson on how music can percolate, let Amarafleur show you how.
soulslide – NVMI featuring Tom Saison [produced by NVMI, Muano, Tom Saison & Fletcher Blvck]
Our next song is a ballad that soaks itself in heartache and how tempestuous the feeling is when it’s still fresh. NVMI released his ultra-romantic EP, Let Me In, deep within winter and our pick is its centerpiece, soulslide. Now for those unaware, like I was before the song dropped, a soul-slide describes a time of devastation where a person reels from a painful event, and often includes chest pains and a sunken stomach like your soul is sliding away. soulslide sonically lives up to its title. NVMI and his band of collaborators deliver a production that starts off delicate and progressively intensifies in stress as the song goes on and the way the electric guitar shreds mutedly within the production feels like heart-ache leaking. Tom Saison provides soulslide‘s vocal and delivers one of my favourite performances of the young decade; mans is going through it and he takes us through it.
Conceptually, the song finds him writing a letter to express his feelings, a letter he’s written several times over but will never send. It finds him wresting with all things he can no longer do because the relationship is over but he’s still very much in love. Tom Saison unravels in this song and breathes new pain in every “no more…” he sings as it builds into its own choired meditation. The vocal production is magical from the “ho-he-ha”s to the background harmonies. soulslide is a song that proves Tom Saison can be a balladeer for the ages with how he milks and expresses emotion. NVMI created alt-soul magic in crafting this heartbreak ballad. I was spell-bound on first listen and I’m still reeling hundreds of plays later. soulslide feels like multiple musicians poured their souls into it and we get melted in its magic as a result; and I melt. I melt everytime.
Fun Fact: Tom Saison has the most appearances of any singer on the 2021 list. He is also tied with DJ Maphorisa & Maglera Doe Boy for having the most overall artists entries on this year’s list with 3 appearances each.
Read more Tom Saison related content here.
Stranger Things – Lesedi featuring Silas Africa [produced by Jay Stuyvesant & Lesedi Nkatlo]
Since we’re on the topic of heart-ache, let me introduce you to a seething piece of hip-hop soul that can chill you to your core; Lesedi & Silas Africa’s Stranger Things. Lesedi & Silas Africa feel like hidden gems who are deserving of a much wider spotlight than the one’s they’re currently under. Now a group called Jukebox, this counter-tenor/rapper duo have built a catalogue that often blends hip-hop, house and kwaito into a soulful mix that’s all their own. Our pick is a stand-a-lone rap ballad that dropped in September, Stranger Things. Stranger Things feels descendant of 2Pac’s Brenda’s Got A Baby. Firstly, because it slips a nod to the actual song within his lyric but more importantly it uses a similar nexus as its final image. Both songs are centered around the death of a young girl and the communal cause of effects that led to her death. Stranger Things differs by painting a story of a girl with more proactive agency in her story and also places a more searing lens into misogyny and the systems that not only protect it but greatly reward its abusers.
The song begins with Silas Africa as a parent grieving the death of their child with a seething lullaby; a lullaby that then plays in the background on loop as Lesedi unleashes a scathing commentary filled with indictments. Lesedi launches for the jugular with an opening statement that reads: “So tell me…You don’t give a – as long as it is on Twitter. As long as you don’t know her then you let society cripple her. It don’t really matter till it happens to your sister until it’s someone close then you’ll snap and lose your temper.” Lesedi raps uninterrupted for just over 2 minutes as he explores how gang-rape is viewed as male-bonding in certain circles. He further describes ways in which extended family and wider society often protects their abusers whilst systemically alienating its victims in a perpetual cycle that further emboldens abusers if they’re moneyed, slick-talking or appear dignified. This is how we’re introduced to our unnamed girl; pregnant from her uncle as she tries figure out her next steps. Stranger Things is critical, torturesome and vivid in its portrait of a society that’s the statistical rape capital of the world. It’s a song that allows Lesedi a wide-enough canvas to showcase his rawer storytelling capabilities and the results are unshakeable. Stranger Things lies as a podium rap moment for a duo I hope to see get more recognition for their ability to engross us in their world, even when they are as cold and cruel as this.
The Dilemma – Huey featuring Johnny Basz [produced by Johnny Basz]
I’ve been on record multiple times calling Huey one of the coolest rappers in South Ah for a while now and it doesn’t seem like that’s ending any time soon. His persona oozes cool whilst his pen is as sly as the best of them. Our next pick, off his concept EP summr: grace, not only puts that persona on full display with all the grandeur that hip-hop’s braggadocio comes with but it reveals the more damaging aspects maintaining such optics can be on more intimate relationships. The Dilemma finds Huey laying out his ambitions of music domination as he meets with a romantic interest. He realizes he’s growing feelings for her. Feelings of settling down that he doesn’t want to entertain because it requires compromising a lifestyle and vision he’s not willing to renege on.
Backed by an exquisite chipmunk soul production, The Dilemma is a banger that strikes a sonic balance between sounding romantic and providing club-aesthetics. The club aesthetics become more pronounced within the song’s bouncy chorus and you can literally hear a lighter sparking a blunt continuously as a pitched down vocal chants ‘Whole lotta smoke in my section. Cash, money, ho*s in my section; you should make toast in my section. I was with my bro’s spending blessings”. It’s a vibe that puts Huey’s vision on display but the high feels pyrrhic as Huey launches us into a tumultuous second verse that finds Huey cancelling on plans and arriving to dates hours late. He sounds legitimately intoxicated as he tries to come up with excuses for his actions that ring hollow and fully confirms that he doesn’t want to make space for her in his vision to meet her needs. The Dilemma is a song that can make you feel vacant within its seduction as it rears the ugly side of grandeur with an unflattering lens. It’s fascinating storytelling from an artist that’s getting bolder with his creative ambition and character-work; and I for one am a growing fan of all these risks.
where lucy said – aboynamedblu [produced by Desmond Orrill-Legg, Aqib Kazi & Pascal Righini]
Man, this song takes me back to being a neurotic kid in a time where pop punk would be playing on MTV and grunge on VH-1; where mainstream rock held a healthy place within the mainstream as well as within my musical diet. It takes me back to a time where I would read blogs and lists just like this to find new music that I could play on my iPod. Our final ballad is a rock song that brings us back to heartbreak; aboynamedblu’s angsty where lucy said. where lucy said finds aboynamedblu wallowing from a break-up. He decides to visit places where she would frequent in hopes of finding her and winds up relieving more peaceful moments of their time together. aboynamedblu is defeated as he tries to hold on to whatever he can in this relationship as the crux of the chorus reads, “I try my luck and knock on the door where you said you’d be someday. I’m tired of your nonsense but just enough to keep me here…” where lucy said holds some of the most melancholic harmonies I’ve rested on this year, that just wallow with you as each section of the song rises in intensity until it reaches its screaming climax. Backed by a full band and aboynamedblu’s full-throated intensity, the song’s screaming climax has been one of the most cathartic places to vent through my own personal frustration or just relive simpler memories of a time that didn’t come with the burdens of trying to find your place within a pandemic and economic depression. In fact, aboynamedblu’s EP ALONE ON MOST DAYS has been one of my most played companions throughout 2021 for this exact reason. Sometimes it’s comforting to wallow, especially when aboynamedblu makes it feel this good.
23 – Tyson Sybateli featuring Aifheli & popsnotthefather [produced by DoouShii]
Tyson Sybateli has been my favourite local rapper of this young decade with his brand of heartful yet boisterous hip-hop. He dominated our list last year with music that found him combative, braggadoccious & aggressive. Snakes and colorful violence filled his music so it was surprising and somewhat refreshing to see him wear contentment and romance just as well this year. Our pick is seductive hip-hop fun that finds Tyson opening himself up to genuine romance in the two-for-one special that is, 23. Backed by an intoxicatingly smooth DoouShii production, the first act of the song finds Tyson and Aifheli in a flirty mood as they spend the night courting some pretty 23’s. The song begins with a refrain that reads, “Somebody might fall tonight, I wanna know who I gotta send for. I got enough for tonight, girl we can do a dinner if you in though.” This half of the song is filled a barrage of sweet nothings over blissful melodies and it’s so satisfying to listen to. With nary a rap-verse in sight Aifheli steals the track with his verse of come-ons and flirtatious instructions. His husky tone is magic as it floats on top of a mellow yet intensifying guitar solo that enhances the mood. The second act gets more intimate with the beat change as Tyson recruits popsnotthefather to introduce a new refrain that reads, “I’m ready, even when you not here. I’m ready, prolly got my heart here. I’m ready, even when my heart spill out.” Tyson’s ready to fall in love as conversational voice notes creep into the track before he finally delivers a verse that confirms his intentions. 23 is a romantic feel-good banger that offers new shades to an already versatile artist progressing into a new chapter of his life, and I honestly can’t wait to see what this new chapter looks like on him.
Listen to Tyson S.T Next Gen Greats Feature here.
888 – Adrienne Foo & Phiwo featuring DoouShii [produced by DoouShii]
Our final pick ends this list of with some sass from a different DoouShii production; Adrienne Foo & Phiwo’s 888. Adrienne Foo & Phiwo are individual soulful-toned singers that decided to team on a three-track EP called NMBRS and it’s alt-R&B gold. Our selection is a song that finds both of them within a tumultuous relationship where they’re trying to figure out what it is they truly want. Production-wise, the song is sexy and sassy. It finds DoouShii’s style invoking a Timbaland’s mid-00’s era influence in what is really one of my favourite beats of the year and his entire catalogue. Adrienne Foo & Phiwo inject more attitude into it as the stew on a relationship that seems to be running hot-and-cold. I’m not going to lie to you; following their thoughts on the relationship is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. It’s chaotic and it’s not cohesive but its delicious chaos. Their musings run from venting about their relationship’s misgivings as they call for its end to contemplating staying because things are kinda hot right now. 888 tries to find an amicable resolution and never really rests on one as the cycle of their tumultuous relationship continues. It’s messy but it brings some much needed sass from an inspired duo-pairing.
Fun Fact: DoouShii is the only producer to appear twice in our Top 21 with his credits on 23 and 888. He is also tied with DJ Maphorisa as the producers with the most production credits in this entire list; carrying 4 credits each.
Before we sign off, I wanted to acknowledge 2 songs that weren’t officially considered due to some parameters. One was a cover, and the other would’ve been eligible but I only heard it after having solidified this 70-strong list.
Thula – Manana [produced by Noble]
Simply put, Manana’s rendition of this lullably is one of the most delicately beautiful things I’ve heard this year. Manana delivers a vocal for the ages as he sings his baby to sleep and I continuously find comfort in it. I’ve just personally avoided doing strict covers for this list but you should honestly take the time to listen to it if you love lullabies. It’s an exquisite one.
Listen to Noble’s All That Yazz Feature on Manana’s In the beginning was the end here.
DEMONS/ESCAPE – Die Mondez featuring Die Fox, BLFR & Zoocci Coke Dope [produced by BFLR & Zoocci Coke Dope]
This is expensive and cinematic trap from one of the premium sources of it in South Africa. I just got on late to it but it doesn’t mean you should also sleep on it if you’re a fan of trap.