I Miss The Days When AKA Rapped More Than He Sang

"AKA's venture into pop is cool, but his rapping is way better," writes Sabelo Mkhabela in his South African hip-hop column.

In a series of since-deleted tweets, on the 12th of March 2016, the rapper AKA announced his forays into pop music. “I hereby renounce my title as 'Prince of SA hip-hop," he tweeted in all caps. “You will now address me as 'the king of pop'."

Two days later, the rapper performed the single “One Time" for the first time, on the popular SABC music show Live Amp. On the song, Supa Mega doesn't rap, but sings in auto-tune throughout. It's a cool song, though nothing worth writing home about.

There was also nothing wrong with him venturing into pop—or rather singing more than he rapped. After all, some of the greatest rappers—Yasiin Bey, Phonte, Kanye West, Drake, Lil Wayne—can hit the high notes and give your favorite R&B stars a run for their money. Locally, Stogie T, A-Reece, Nasty C, Ab Crazy and a few more, incorporate singing in their music. Singing and rapping with the aid of auto-tune is a big part of modern hip-hop music.

AKA has never shied away from singing his own hooks as illustrated on songs like “All I Know," “Mistakes," and “When I'm Gone." But it wasn't something he would be judged on, as you could tell he wasn't trying to be the next best vocalist, but was just making rap hooks, think of Nas on songs like “Poppa Was a Playa" and “Doo Rags."

Supa Mega started showing signs of growing as a singer on songs like then-labelmate Tresor's 2015 hit “Mount Everest". The song kicks off with a normal AKA rap verse, but he comes back towards the end and gives his own rendition of the hook, which he nails, without auto-tune even.

Even while on this recent pop streak, however, AKA didn't completely abandon rapping. He appeared on songs like Du Boiz's “Hallelujah" and Blayze's “Get The Bag," among others, and dropped solid verses.

But when it came to his own singles, Supa Mega was rapping less, if at all, and singing more. Which wasn't a train smash. One thing you can't take away from AKA is his ability to make solid songs, with well-constructed bridges, hooks and verses, and how he marries beats and vocals in a way your fave can't even dream of. His use of auto-tune is also one of the best in the country. I personally feel Reason, on his latest album Love Girls, could have used some help from Supa Mega. Love Girls is a solid album, but the auto-tune wasn't used properly.

AKA and auto-tune are inseparable these days, which, as mentioned above, isn't a problem. But he takes it a bit too far when he uses it for every song on his live performances. I was disappointed when I saw him perform some of his most solid rap songs like “I Want It All" and “Composure" on auto-tune at the Cape Town stop of his Supa Mega Show concert series late last year. It just didn't work. It stripped the songs of their grit, and bluntly put, sounded annoying.

When earlier this year, he released “10 Fingers," the first official single to Be Careful What You Wish For, his recently-released collaborative album with Anatii, I was personally disappointed. The song, even though popular, is average on AKA standards. And the singing made me—and probably other AKA fans—miss rapping AKA. As if to have heard the cries, he came back hard on the second single “Don't Forget To Pray." His verse was impressive. Anatii's one, too, was all fire-flame emojis.

When “Holy Mountain" was released as part of the album's pre-order package, I had my own doubts. The song was substandard for a collaboration between two artists of that caliber. Chances of BCWYWF being the best album of 2017 were slowly diminishing.

BCWYWF is not the Watch The Throne a lot of fans had envisaged it to be. The opening song “Bryanston Drive" is a promise of a great body of work to come. AKA's raps are clean—he sounds confident, and his lyrics are a great balance between self-praise and vulnerability, and the song has a good balance between singing and rapping. AKA's intangibles—charisma, presence—make the song. “Bryanston Drive" is solid, and gave me goose bumps on first listen.

But the album falls flat, with okay songs like “10 Fingers," “How You Like Me Now?," “Holy Mountain," and “Jesus Plug," which even as pop songs aren't anything special. A few great tracks of course make sure the album isn't a total mess—“Camps Bay 3," “Angelz," “Don't Forget To Pray," and “The Saga."

Maybe I'm just too much of a hip-hop head, and this album isn't for me. But AKA raps better than he sings. It's on the songs where he raps, like “Don't Forget To Pray," “Bryanston Drive," “The Saga," where he actually shines, and lives up to his stature.

Songs like those are reminiscent of the AKA I fell in love with on his 2009 mixtape 24/7/366—the hungry rapper who had a lot to prove, appearing on street cuts alongside backpackers like Mothipa and Ill Skillz on the posse track “F U 1 2" and holding his own. The AKA who rapped on “Reign," the opening song of his debut album Altar Ego, like he meant every word. He maintained the same energy throughout Altar Ego, on songs like “All I Know," “Victory Lap," and “Bang".

The AKA who gave Tumi and Zeus a run for their money on “Dats Wassup". The AKA who stole the show on the remix to Ice Prince's single “N-Word." The AKA who made one of the most memorable diss songs in South African rap history on “Composure."

On his sophomore album Levels, AKA came back less hungrier than he was on Altar Ego, because he actually was far from that. But he still commanded your attention on songs like “Sim Dope," “Run Jozi," and “Pressure." Even on celebratory songs like “Congratulate," he was engaging, adding some kwaito flavor to his verses.

When he announced he was going pop, it wasn't a strange direction to take from an artist who thrives on unpredictability and willingness to go against the grain—he chose to sample dance music when every rapper was sampling old school kwaito songs a few years ago. The move to pop music wasn't surprising coming from an artist who had made songs like the aforementioned “Congratulate," “Jealousy" and “Let Me Show You" which, even though, saw him rap, had a lot of pop sensibilities. Plus, Supa Mega had been lowkey delivering the best sung hooks alongside solid rap verses on his guest appearances—MaE's “Don't Lie To Me," Stogie T's “Miss Joburg," Yanga's “Tricky," Blayze's “Get The Bag," Da L.E.S' “Heaven" and “Real Stuff" among others.

On some of the appearances mentioned above, AKA's verses are drenched in auto-tune, and he still sounds great. Hip-hop is becoming more melodic by the day, and Supa Mega isn't one to get left behind. It's when he decides to sing fully blown that he becomes suspect. His attempts have been hit-or-miss in that department.

He got it right on “The World Is Yours" and “Special Fi Mi" (with Nigeria's Patoran King), and not so much on “Caiphus Song," even though it's the type of song you find yourself falling in love with, and somehow hating yourself for it. But he fumbles a lot on most of BCWYWF. Pop music isn't necessarily about having the greatest singing voice—it's about catchy hooks and verses, and well-laid out songs, which AKA is good at, but something just doesn't feel right on BCWYWF.

And for this reason, I miss rapping AKA. Not because I'm anti-progress, and not because there's anything wrong with rappers singing. One of the best hip-hop artists in South Africa, Stogie T is always evolving and trying out new things, which has ensured his long run. AKA, too, evolves with each release, and the singing is cool and all. But simply put, he raps better than he sings.

Someone hide auto-tune from that dude, please.

This piece is part of Sabelo Mkhabela's South African hip-hop column. He's happy to debate you on Twitter: @sabzamk

Photo courtesy of 1-54/SUTTON.

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