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Hiphop still doesn’t know what to do with the legacy of Fela Kuti, and perhaps nobody should be surprised. Although a few enlightened crews—most notably the Roots—have found periodic inspiration in the late Black President’s politically charged long-form funk, as far as most U.S. producers and MCs are concerned, the music might as well be from another planet. Sure, Fela’s son Femi Kuti, who plays a prettied-up version of the Afrobeat sound his father pioneered, has managed to carve out a decent following in America, but his tunes probably won’t be coming to any Hot FM playlists anytime soon. In short, Fela is there for the taking. But there are complications: The grooves, the grunts, the horns—if anything, it’s all too daunting, too African.
Wale Oyejide has at least that last hang-up out of the way: The 23-year-old Atlantan was born in the same Nigeria where Fela became a mythic figure. Absorbing the sounds of West Africa into his music isn’t a matter of identity-hopping for Oyejide—it’s a matter of claiming a heritage that resides in his birth name. Of course, when Oyejide began his career as a producer and vocalist, he took the moniker Science Fiction, under which he turned a few heads with 2003’s Walls Don’t Exist, a cool, moody collection of beats with touches of neo-soul and triphop. He called it “broken jazz,” and few critics, if any, dwelt on his African background. He seemed set for a career as another Madlib, a vinyl-craving cool cat with evolving connections to hiphop’s intellectuals.
On the new One Day…Everything Changed, though, Oyejide reclaims his name, immerses himself in Fela’s funk, and puts everything in the context of American society. It sounds like the record he’s been waiting to make since his days at Morehouse College, where he says he ditched the guitar—yeah, Oyejide’s journey to beatmaker also included a rock phase—and started teaching himself the ins and outs of hiphop rhythms. But there are a few things the disc consciously avoids: It’s not an explosive homage to the political fire-starting that Fela did in Lagos. It’s not an argument that African music is somehow more pure or authentic. And it’s not as intensely personal as it could have been.
In other words, Oyejide doesn’t pull a bait-and-switch. The disc’s “Theme Music” echoes with Fela’s shouts and features guitar and keyboard phrases that sound as if they had been pulled directly from one of the singer’s ’70s classics, but it’s essentially a chill-out track: Oyejide’s intermittent bass line and decidedly modern drum-machine rhythm are measured and calm. It might be a safe move, but it’s also smart. By keeping the unstoppable-force part of Fela at a distance, Oyejide can carve out plenty of room for his mellower outlook. Early hiphop artists, in sampling just about every second of James Brown’s hits, didn’t have the luxury to make a similar choice. They understood their direct connection to “Cold Sweat” and all those other on-the-one grooves, and they claimed them in the name of evolution.
Still, there are a few significant shortcomings in Oyejide’s beat science: He’s not much of a singer, for one thing, and he makes no attempt to rhyme in the traditional sense. When his vocals provide the bulk of the personality in a song—as in the blues-influenced, bad-woman tale “Ever After (Part 2)” and the street narrative “Damn James”—Oyejide can be underwhelming. Unlike Pharrell Williams’ equally thin but goofier croon, Oyejide’s vocals aren’t sweetly cocky. Sometimes they’re just plain soft—which doesn’t always work in his favor.
One Day is the rare album that actually needs guest rappers—in fact, Oyejide could have added a couple more without sinking the project. The title track, which features Atlanta’s Lacks, is the most effective collaboration: Oyejide builds a midtempo groove on ringing organ chords, a snare beat, and African percussion while Lacks delivers a no-nonsense rap pointed at everyone from close-minded youth to the “Republicans in government.” More important, it’s one of the few songs here on which Oyejide’s singing isn’t a letdown. With their unsettling intervals, his harmonies are distinctly African, and they communicate the idea that protest music should make the listener at least a little uncomfortable.
The disc’s first single, “There’s a War Going On,” has a similar setup. Detroit mainstay Jay Dee provides baritone rhymes, and Oyejide gruffly mimics Fela on a couple of the verses. On his own, he might have sounded a bit amateurish or reverential, but with Jay’s forceful flow always around the corner, Oyejide provides an effective contrast: “And they can try to lock me up, but they can throw away the key/But when the hear the music pump, it’s going to set their spirits free,” he raps over the track’s shuffling polyrhythms. The buzzy synth lines, which sound a bit like air-raid sirens that have been roughed up and knocked down a few octaves, don’t hurt, either.
One Day’s other guest spot, MF Doom’s typically elliptical verses on “This Is Dedicated To,” features the album’s best couplet: “There was a time when there was no fake gun-clappin’ rappin’ happenin’/Let me know when they done yappin’.” Doom delivers the lines in his uniquely detached way, which is compelling enough on its own. But the sentiment is hardly revolutionary, and neither is the song as a whole. When Oyejide has the mike, the track becomes a laid-back shoutout to a continuum of positive-tip hiphoppers: Pete Rock, KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Star, J-Live, and so on. It’s smooth, but it’s also dutiful, as if Oyejide felt obligated to spell out those influences. His Africanness, always present but never made quite so explicit, is expressed much more powerfully.
Maybe that’s an unfair observation, though. Oyejide is still a newcomer to hiphop, a genre in which neophytes are under special pressure to recognize their heroes. It’s a function of the culture, because most veteran rappers eventually get around to bitching about younger artists’ lack of perspective. The ones who are paying attention—that is, guys like Oyejide—feel compelled to prove that they know their history. That’s the real goal of One Day…Everything Changed: to show that Oyejide is just as familiar with the part of his identity he acquired rather than inherited. And in the end, his need to connect with America provides the stronger tug. Fela, it seems, is still a world away.CP