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SPIN Essentials

Spoek Mathambo, ‘Father Creeper’ (Sub Pop)

Spoek Mathambo / Sub Pop
SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Label: Sub Pop

He’s creepy and he’s kooky, mysterious and Spoek-y — and he’s altogether the most ambitious and experimental young pop musician to emerge from anywhere in Africa in recent memory. With a bottomless array of astounding vinyl reissues from the 1970s and ’80s constantly bubbling into our ever-expanding download folders, we rarely stumble across great African pop that sounds uncompromisingly now in all its overdetermined complexity. Spoek Mathambo (né Nthato Mokgata) fills that need. While his 2010 solo debut Mshini Wam (translated as Bring Me My Machine Gun) was promising in a guided-by-M.I.A. kind of way, Father Creeper is downright epic. During the past few years, he’s evolved from a cocky local rapper into a continent-spanning, band-leading creator with a sound and vision rooted in his Soweto upbringing, but as wide and weird as the world and Web allows.

Mathambo was born in 1985, near the beginning of a decade of violent political turmoil in his home country that culminated in the African National Congress assuming majority rule in 1994. Father Creeper is his cradle-to-graveyard vision of a Johannesburg that still recalls the bad times while hoping for a brighter future, expressed through a hectic hybrid of live and electronic sounds, twisted hooks, and polyglot raps. It opens with the adolescent kicks of “Kites,” the first of an increasingly visceral dissection of normalcy haunted by past and present demons, dredging up creatures more perplexingly plagued than the passive alien “prawns” depicted in District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 apartheid horror allegory. The harrowing family portrait “Put Some Red on It” (co-written by Mathambo and wife Ana Rab, a.k.a., Gnucci Banana, with whom he now shares a home in Sweden) contains images like “Your mama belly-gutted, hollow, flies fill her up / Her lips blood-stained, throat raw from throwing up.”

The social optimism Mathambo conveys in interviews isn’t nearly so prevalent on Father Creeper. The working world is dumb and corrupt, as glimpsed in the Pachinko-pinging “Venison Fingers” and the lowered expectations and outright refusal of “We Can Work.” (“We was raised to resent punching the clock / Which mama’s bones crushed from the weight of the rock.”) The bodies that once littered his neighborhood demand satisfaction in “Dog to Bone,” wherein “tortured kids from yesterday sing, ‘We should also get paid.'” The creepy slide continues all the way to the end of an album whose last three tracks are a gloomy yet somehow sexy trip to the boneyard, ending with the quasi-blues of “Grave,” which suggests a Prince video directed by Ed Wood Jr., and which sounds no less powerful for its B-movie overtones.

For maximum uplift, however, look no further than Mathambo’s 2011 mixtape Nombolo One. Released online last December, it’s hard to imagine a better coming-out party for the new blood of Johannesburg’s aspiring young guard than this pay-whatever-you-want album of a dozen radically reworked South African pop classics. Don’t even consider listening, though, without going back to the YouTubed source material, a crash course in South African pop of the ’70s and ’80s. Mathambo enlisted friends from Jo’burg combos Dirty Paraffin (think Das Racist, only Zulu), Big Fkn Gun (heavy rap), The Brother Moves On (SA art-rock), and the Frown (ye olde indie rock) to assemble the collection; as little as a simple synth figure or a genetically embedded high-hat filigree is retained from the originals, including Brenda Fassie’s Donna Summer-esque “Weekend Special,” Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens’ groaning “Melodi,” Sipho “Hotsticks” Mabuse’s steamy “Burnout,” and Sankamoto’s moving power ballad “Waiting for Your Name to Be Called.”

The Brother Moves On turns the kwaito (South African house) hit “Jacknife” into a sort of a screwed Jefferson Airplane track, and you might hear echoes of Africa-influenced Brooklyn indies like Vampire Weekend, Delicate Steve, and Dirty Projectors. It’s more Talking Heads than Paul Simon, though, a grinding, winding sound that guitarist Nicolaas Van Reenen unspools throughout Father Creeper (especially on the few minutes of unexpected guitar thrash that close out “Let Them Talk”). Today, even an outside electric guitarist sounds no less folkloric than the witches, zombies, and everyday thugs who drift through Spoek’s spiel, another counterpoint to the strange electronic brew. It’s the sound of an artist seizing control of the means of production with tentative authority, one foot in the past, the other in the future.

Mathambo describes Father Creeper as something of a tentative first kiss, maybe with braces, thus a little bloody. Look to “Dog to Bone” for signs of his process: “Jitterbug epileptic shake, then give a hug / Do the John Ritter, give a has-been a hug…Write what I like, Baby Steve Biko, ugh!!”