- SPIN Rating:8 of 10
Together since 2000, South London production trio LV only released their full-length debut last year, when Routes sutured Nigeria-born funk poet Joshua Idehen's voice into an asymmetrical sonic matrix, creating a striking psycho-geography of London and its citizenry in constant movement. Now, Will Horrocks, Gervase Gordon, and Si Williams look much further afield on Sebenza: all the way to South Africa, where the more things change, if only to judge by the police killings of 34 miners earlier this month, the more they stay the same.
It's a more fascinating, if less coherent, affair than last time — sharper, crisper, and edgier, with guest rappers Okmalumkoolkat, Ruffest, and Spoek Mathambo both blending in and standing out. Okmalumkoolkat, of Johannesburg art-pop collective Dirty Paraffin, takes the most initiative, appearing on eight of 14 tracks, which is funny, since he’s certainly among the world's more nonchalant rappers. Think of him as a kind of junior Lee Perry, specializing in the manufacture of alternate personas on the fly: "I'm a cut diamond," he practically purrs on "Zulu Computar" over laid-back grime beats. "Cut under pressure / Shamrock thresher/ Eardrum basher… booty inspector." A graphic designer by trade, the man born Smiso Zwane invokes the four process-printing colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black); hisses, "Look, I'm an MPEG, JPEG, Twitter avatar" in the slinky "Spittin' Cobra"; and makes "You gotta check out my blog / I got so much shit to share with you" into, against all odds, the most memorable hook on Sebenza, Auto-Tune and all.
Meanwhile, all the rappers and producers bring out the deepest, weirdest tendencies in one another. As Okmalumkoolkat delves into his various personal mythologies on "Animal Prints" or "Primus Stove," LV respond with helium voices, lingering minor-chord keyboard harmonies, and polyrhythms as beatifically akimbo as the colorful blobs of a Calder mobile. The trio's first singles after signing with Hyperdub in 2007 — including the deep and beautiful "Turn Away" and "CCTV" — leaned more toward traditional dub than dubstep. But that had changed by their initial hook-up with Okmalumkoolkat on 2010's "Boomslang," which percolates with a stripped-down version of South African kwaito, the sample-friendly Johannesburg-born house variation.
That rhythm characterizes the three tracks smack dab in Sebenza's middle, all featuring Ruffest, the Cape Town duo of Max Stemele and Sello Mangwan. Paralyzed from the waist down since 2004, when he was caught in the crossfire of a Nyanga gang shootout, Stemele, rapping in Zulu, brings a bracing tenacity to the bouncing, boastful tracks "Hustla" and "Nothing Like"; and don't be surprised if this workingman's dancehall stomp brings to mind the forceful simplicity of modern Egyptian shaabi. The duo return later for "Ultando Lwaka," a Prince-ly slice of skittering synth-funk.
Sebenza means work in Zulu, by the way. "Se-sebenza," Okmalumkoolkat pants in city-slicker mimicry of a working stiff's Sisyphean struggles on the title track. "Se-sebenza only rests in December." The whole production, from the ever-nonchalant rapping to the tightly wound, kuduro-like beats, sounds deceptively casual in the context of current events. "Work," on the contrary, ends the album with a slower, spookier vibe provided by Spoek Mathambo: "Work, sebenza, elbow grease like nine-to-five, work." It's a joke without a punch line, a musical showstopper without Dolly Parton.
South African music, thanks in large part to Mathambo, is enjoying one of its biggest bursts of international buzz since Paul Simon swooned over Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Sebenza, though, is less a showcase for younger SA talent than a genuine international collaboration of equals. LV's initials may be on the sleeve, but it's best to experience the set as a chain-breaking declaration of freedom from the typical hierarchy that separates producer from talent. Or as Okmalumkoolkat declares with delight toward the end of "Zulu Computar": "I feel like I'm not working! Refresh!"