More South African hip-hop albums were released this year than at any other time in history. You could say 2016 was the year albums took over South Africa.
From OGs like Stogie T to several debuts by the likes of Nasty C, A-Reece and Pdot O, the overall quality of releases was impressive. Even mixatpes and EPs by the likes of ByLwansta, Youngsta and Mr. Beef sounded like well-thought and coherent albums.
Below, we present you with the 15 best releases of the year, listed here in no particular order.
For more from our ‘Best of 2016’ series, check out the 10 Best Nigerian Songs of 2016.
Khuli Chana – One Source
One Source is essentially an ad for ABSOLUT. While it might be off-putting to listen to music knowing it’s backed by a brand, the nine-track EP has some bright moments—too many to not qualify it as a dope project. It’s what the African music industry needs—more pan-African collaborations. Chana roped in guests from different countries, like Victoria Kimani (Kenya), Stonebwoy (Ghana), Patoranking (Nigeria), Sarkodie (Ghana) and Cassper Nyovest (South Africa), among others.
One Source is denser and more aggressive compared to Chana’s previous albums, Motswakoriginator (2011) and Lost In Time (2012)—except perhaps for the mellow Victoria Kimani-featuring “Love Still.” What’s great is that Chana is not playing it safe, experimenting with afrobeats on tracks like “Moteng” and “Tlekeke.” The emcee still raps his verses in his high-precision delivery, doing the same lyrical gymnastics that have made him one of the best lyricists in South Africa. One Source may have been a challenge for old Chana fans, but after a few spins it makes sense what he set out to do. Not many can do what Chana did here.
Download One Source here.
Priddy Ugly – You Don’t Know Me Yet
Priddy Ugly sounds like no rapper you’ve heard before. And his producer Whichi 1080’s approach to trap is refreshing. On his debut project, You Don’t Know Me Yet, Priddy Ugly worked only with Whichi 1080. The result was a solid, monolithic body of work that eludes monotony. Every song sounds different to the next, from the kwaito-influenced “Boola Boot” to the the somber “Ambitions,” the eardrum-wrecking “Cocaine Ghost,” the catchy “My Swing,” the dancehall-influenced “Nobody,” to the rappity rap “Come to my Kasi” and everything in between.
Whether he’s singing or rapping, Priddy Ugly’s voice sits well over Whichi 1080’s healthy basslines. He also enlists like-minded rappers such as Youngsta, Ginger Trill, Shane Eagle, BigStar Johnson and A-Reece to complete what’s already a solid project. While most rappers choose to work with different producers, Priddy Ugly and Whichi 1080 are all the proof you need that a solid rapper-producer combo is the way to go. It’s just not as easy as they make it look.
Download You Don’t Know Me Yet here.
Anatii – Artiifact
Anatii has been in the game since he was 17, when he produced L-Tido’s 2009 hit “When It Rains.” He has been hinting an album ever since, while releasing singles and producing and appearing on other rappers’ songs. In 2016, he finally released his debut album. And it’s a piece of art.
The production is the best trait of the album. Anatii is one of the most gifted on the boards in South Africa—the basslines bang and every element of his beats sits where it’s supposed to. Sonically, Artiifact dabbles between R&B (“Tell Me,” “Proper”), trap (“The Saga,” “Jump,” “Y.A.W.I”) and afrobeats (“Hold On,” “Thanda”), with a diverse guest list ranging from Omarion, Tiwa Savage, Uhuru, AKA, Nasty C.
Hip-hop purists can pass on this one, as Anatii refuses to box himself into one style or genre. While most artists who do that end up giving us a scattered album, Artiifact has a subtle uniformity, probably because Anatii isn’t a novice producer. He sings more than he raps, and has hit single prospects on the album. “Proper,” which features Nigeria’s Tiwa Savage, could become a pop smash hit next year. It’s definitely the strongest song on the album.
Download Artiifact here.
A-Reece — Paradise
Paradise strikes a good balance between rap songs and sing-songy pop tunes—songs like “Ama Hater,” “Make Up Your Mind,” “That Is My Bitch,” have potential to be radio singles. A-Reece is a great emcee—he has a flawless delivery, and has a way with words, whether he’s bragging (“Not Anymore,” “Paradise”) or telling heartfelt personal stories (“Family,” “What U in 4,” “Sebenza”). And he switches between English and vernacular effortlessly.
The production on Paradise, which leans more towards trap, is also stellar. The only fault about is this album is it’s too long. The lyrical content and production become monotonous. But is it a bad album? Hell to the no. It’s a great way for A-Reece to introduce himself to the industry, and show he can make songs that appeal to more than backpackers like his earlier music—like 2014’s Browniez EP–did.
Download Paradise here.
Youngsta x Ganja Beatz — The Cape and Good Dope
The producer trio Ganja Beatz, who have produced for the likes of Tumi, Riky Rick and DJ Switch, teamed up with Cape Town rap’s most visible rapper, Youngsta, for a project. Cleverly titled The Cape and Good Dope, the project is short and straight to the point, with humorous skits between intense beats and rhymes. Youngsta is potent throughout, rapping about the bad and good of growing up in Cape Town and his experience in the industry.
Youngsta’s strongest trait as an emcee is the clarity of his delivery—you can hear each and every word he spits. He switches flows to match every beat, and sings (if I may) on some hooks. The Cape and Good Dope is a great collaboration of beats and rhymes; Youngsta doesn’t just pick beats and randomly rap to them. The music matches the lyrical content. For instance, on “I’ve Seen It All,” the music is a bit moody as he raps about the ills he has seen growing up in Cape Town. Then there’s the lead single, “WE$-KAAP,” a humorous track in which he compares the Western Cape to the West Coast, making references to Tupac and Biggie. The music on the song is happier, with an old school kwaito feel. Stilo Magolide and Stogie T are the only guest features on the short project. Youngsta holds his own, with clever lines that either crack you up or have you thinking.
Download The Cape and Good Dope here.
Stogie T — Stogie T
Tumi Molekane released a self-titled album under his new moniker Stogie T. Even though the album has some songs that are celebratory (“Big Dreams,” “By Any Means,” “Diamond Walk,” “Clean Stuff”), the conscious rapper mold is hard to escape (not that he’s trying to). Songs like “Going Gorilla,” “Son of a Soldier,” “Sub City” and “Pray For Us” offer a social commentary that Tumi has grown to be synonymous with. His penmanship is sharp throughout, regardless of subject. His wordplay is clever yet subtle; you’ll pick up double entendres and meanings of some lines with every listen.
Stogie T is a well-crafted body of work. T roped in young producers like Tru Hitz and Tweezy to create a synth and 808-heavy production on most of the album. The likes of Emtee, AKA, Nasty C, Yanga, Da L.E.S make appearances, giving the album the commercial appeal Tumi was probably gunning for. Old fans will be impressed. New ones will definitely be recruited.
Download Stogie T here.
Mr. Beef — EP 2016
Newbies will know Mr. Beef as the guy who’s always dropping heavy Zulu verses on Reason’s albums. But Mr. Beef has been here, making appearances on veteran producer Battlekat’s Beats Against The Beast Vol. 1 compilation in 2006. He dropped a memorable verse on the track “Destiny” alongside Maggz, Reason and Mr C.
On his 2016 project, Mr. Beef spits with the same solid delivery he’s been known for. The production is mostly grimy trap, which plays the perfect backdrop for the rapper to tell street tales. He laces all tracks alone, except “Don’t Quit,” an ode to hip-hop, on which he invites Reason and Blaklez to spit a 16 each over a TKZee sample, and “Nithini”, which features Ginger Trill. EP 2016 is a lyrical project that’s not trying to be everything at once. Mr. Beef is serving his audience without any creative concessions, and has great potential to cross over without even trying.
Pdot O – The Devil’z Playground
Pdot O is another overlooked gem of South African rap. “I’m the best I’m just waiting for my chance to prove it,” he raps on the track “This Can’t Be Life,” which features the vocalist Kimosabe. Pdot O is part of the Pretoria label Cap City Records, which is home to criminally slept on lyricists like Blaklez and N’veigh. The Devil’z Playground was promised about four years ago, but was delayed by Universal Music, until the rapper released it independently. So you can imagine the stresses and emotions the man went through.
Pdot O is known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, and he does just that on his debut album. You can feel the emotion in his voice when he raps. He bleeds on the mic and holds nothing back. A few high-tempo tracks, like “Fun With Us” and “Move Over,” provide an intermission to the emotional intensity of the album. A range of vocalists and rappers, including J. Smallz, Kimosabe, Blaklez, Ginger Trill, Maggz among others, give the album diversity, without distorting its feel. 19 songs is a bit too much, but if you’ve been held back for four years and are haunted by the death of your father, it makes a lot of sense. The Devil’z Playground is an emotionally intense album, and gets really depressing at times, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dope.
Download The Devil’z Playground here.
MarazA — Blind
The spotlight has been eluding MarazA for close to a decade. He has been doing great shit behind the scenes, too, most notably producing for Mashayabhuqe KaMamba on his breakout EP, The Black Excellence Show. But this year, MarazA released his most successful single thus far, the innovative “Gwan,” which is up for Song of the Year at the South African Hip Hop Awards. He struck while the iron was hot with an equally great album a few months later. Blind sees MarazA sing more than he raps, but it’s still a hip-hop album. The rapper switches between English and Zulu effortlessly, spitting clever lines in both languages.
MarazA tells his story with emotion and confidence, with skillful wordplay and a solid delivery. And his storytelling is photographic (peep the song “iGazi”). The rapper and producer has come a long way, and has a lot to get off his chest to his newly-gained fanbase. Blind is an outlet for MarazA to showcase his ambidexterity, producing most of the songs. He features a few guests such as Buffalo Souljah, Aewon Wolf and Mashayabhuqe KaMamba, but he does most of the songs solo, and does justice on every one of them. Great album, especially if you don’t mind auto-tune on almost every song.
Download Blind here.
Uno July — Zero Hour Zone LP
Zero Hour Zone was recorded in 24 hours. Even though the mastering could have been better (after all, it was done in a few hours), the 11-track album is not sloppy. Uno July is one of the few Cape Town artists from the mid-2000s era, who progresses with each release. On this album, he ropes in young producers like Psyc’ AK, J-oNE, DJ Skinniez, Desert Head (from Christian Tiger School) and KB, who all ensure his progress doesn’t sound forced.
Even though there are some tracks that are reminiscent of Uno’s Ill Skillz days (“Sounds of the City,” “Fees Must Fall,” “Acting Like A Ten”), most of the album leans towards trap. And he is able to adjust his delivery and sound at home. The mainstream spotlight has been eluding Uno July, but he refuses to lose. He keeps re-inventing himself, and manages to stay himself. Zero Hour Zone LP sounds fresh with a consistent feel-good aura, and reveals Uno as a forward-thinking musician.
ByLwantsa — Your Absolutely Right
Short and to the point, Durban-based rapper ByLwansta’s anti-establishment EP Your Absolutely Right was one of the most left-field releases of the year. ByLwansta rapped over mostly boom bap production, except on the trap-inspired “Stay At Home,” which features the rapper Sipho The Gift. ByLwansta has the viciousness and humor of Slim Shady. YAR has tongue-in-cheek skits that help drive the point home. His rhymes are so sincere, and his delivery is crisp.
YAR is not an EP, it’s an album—the sound is so uniform and the quality of each and every song is just plain impressive and reveals an artist who understands his traits and isn’t trying to please everyone. On “The Routine,” which was produced by veteran producer Trompie, he displays his storytelling skills. “Grey” is a conversation between him and his mother-in-law who is not pleased with her daughter for dating a black man. On “Stay At Home,” ByLwansta exhibits his high-precision flow. 2017 should be big for the 21-year-old rapper. Maybe not MTV Base big, but big nonetheless.
Kwesta — DaKAR II
Through Kwesta’s bars on his third gold-selling album, DaKAR II, you can smell the beer and cigarette smoke in the shebeens of his hood Katlehong. Kwesta’s the quintessential kasi boy, and his music is authentically that. Forget his playful delivery on his smash single “Ngud’,” the emcee raps like his life depends on it on songs like “The Fire” and “Preacher.”
DaKAR II is one of the very few hip-hop double albums that work—it’s not monotonous—Kwesta explores varied subject matter like love (“Ngiyaz’fela Ngawe,” “Shooting Star”), hooking up (“Mind Fcuk”), partying (“Ngud’,” “Nomayini”), social issues (“Preacher”). The album has already produced massive singles like “Ngud’,” “Day Ones,” “Mayibabo” and “Mmino.” Tracks like the sinful “Afro Trap,” which features house singer Busiswa, the dancefloor-ready “Mind Fcuk,” the pop-inspired “Shooting Star,” featuring singer and producer Ameen, all have great potential to be big singles in 2017. Kwesta’s had his most successful year, after years of being overlooked by the industry. Well deserved.
Download DaKAR II here.
Ma-E — Township Counsellor
One of the most slept-on albums from an equally slept-on rapper, Township Counsellor lives up to its name. Ma-E is hood and wears it with pride. He spits some simple yet clever lines throughout, over production that compliments his style. The Cashtime Life rapper appropriates a lot of old school kwaito lines, which work with his mannerism and delivery.
Township Counsellor has a good balance of street-centric songs and radio single prospects, featuring a perfectly curated guest list which includes Maggz, Pro, Emtee, Kid X, Moozlie, Masandi and AKA. Every song stands out, from the production to the hooks, lyrical content and the features. No song shows any evidence of being rushed.
Download Township Counsellor here.
Solo — .Dreams.B.Plenty
A quick listen won’t work. Solo is a deep thinker and a scrupulous writer. .Dreams.B.Plenty makes more sense with each successive listen. The concept album is the second of a three-part trilogy, the first being 2014’s .Dreams.A.Plenty (a great body of work in its own right). .Dreams.B.Plenty is a harder listen than his debut. The rhymes are denser and the beats grimier. They match his content—he’s still pessimistic but more confident than he was on the first project.
.Dreams.B.Plenty has a string of personal skits, in which we hear about Solo’s parents’ 50th anniversary and follow Solo on a flight. At the end of “Not Vogue,” one of the strongest songs on the album, we hear his father expressing his feelings about his son’s choice to be a rapper. It’s a heartwarming moment—adding to the richness of the story that’s being told here. On “Jubilee No LigaMo,” another gem, Solo writes about his late brother and grandmother.
.Dreams.B.Plenty is an extremely personal album—Solo refers to most people by name, including his girlfriend, Dineo Moeketsi. One of the most lyrical and well-crafted releases of the year. It just takes time to grasp.
Download Dreams.B.Plenty here.
Nasty C — Bad Hair Extensions
Nasty C re-released his debut album, Bad Hair, which he had originally put out in September. Titled Bad Hair Extensions, the re-release comes with four new songs, one which features French Montana. At 19 tracks, Bad Hair Extensions could have done with some brevity, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bang as is.
What is special about Nasty C’s debut album is that he wasn’t too careful about it. He didn’t try to be artsy. He made the same kind of music he was making before he became a superstar, producing most of it and featuring his long-time collaborator Erick Rush and the super talented vocalist Tellaman.
Nasty C is one of the best rappers South Africa has ever produced. His flow is rock-solid and he has a way with words. And he’s only 19. On Bad Hair Extensions, the Durban-born rapper talks about relationships (“Phases,” “I Lie”), losing his mother (“Uok”) his stresses (“Problems,” “Vent”) while flexing his skills with eloquent lines (“I got 20K in my pocket/ That’s heavy enough to keep me grounded”). Not flawless, as some tracks are way better than others, but a solid release nonetheless.
Download Bad Hair Extensions here.
Sabelo Mkhabela is a writer from Swaziland, currently based in Cape Town. He also drops award-winning tweets as @SabzaMK.