When the Alan Yentob has exhausted the cultural artefacts of his youth and turns his unrelenting eye, begrudgingly at the age of 90, to the music of our generation, he might make a documentary featuring The Very Best. In a small adjunct to a BBC2 programme celebrating the 25th anniversary of the original Imagine… programme that celebrated the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s Graceland, he will corner The Very Best and implore them to “describe the impact Graceland had on your music”. They do sound “African”, after all.
He will ask them because of that, but also because The Very Best, while not the headlining examples of the recent trend of what used to be called world music and is now just called pop music, will have been one of those bands that got around a lot, worked with everyone and saw it all. He will ask because they covered ‘Paper Planes’, because they collaborated with Santigold, and Vampire Weekend, and sampled The Beatles, and Architecture In Helsinki. He will ask because they appeared on Diplo-curated mixtapes. He will ask because their own debut mixtape had a drawn image of Africa taken straight from the Lion King and don’t they find that strange? He will ask because if war is an American’s way of learning geography, then expensive afrobeat compilations curated by the guitarist from Radiohead and released by hip indie labels are the way they learn about music made in Africa.
But Graceland and the music that immediately springs to mind when you mention it and world music has never exactly been the music that The Very best make, and that’s especially the case on MTMTMK, which sees the duo stripping off the last vestiges of the decorative and worthy tendencies and fully embracing the night on a far more beat-heavy album. ‘Adani’ has Esau’s warm, joyous vocal riding on top of the kind of pounding basement-level bass and tribal click-clack that defined MIA’s last album, until eventually a surging synth riff breaks through the throb of the bass until the beat flips and the bass trills on top of playful whoosh and worps. ‘Rudeboy’ presents an insight into what Calvin Harris arena-dance might sound like if he’d been born in Dijibouti instead of Dumfries, while lead single ‘Kondaine’ indulges in a stuttering, clapping beat and steel drums with the same kind of island goofball attitude as Diplo. It’s not until the Amadou and Mariam-guesting ‘Bantu’ that the frolicking guitar lines and shuffling organic drums that used to so pungently signify world music in the time of Graceland (and the time of Vampire Weekend’s first album) actually show up.
But the rush to a heavier sound has its failings. The dance beats can feel intrusive, fatiguing, a little samey, and often have the effect of crowding out the duo’s strongest weapon: Esau’s voice. Never mind that, to put it plainly, the aforementioned Diplo does a lot of what this MTMTMK tries to do better. And sometimes the album just fails to convince you to have a good time, or that the band are necessarily having one. ‘We Ok’, featuring Somali rapper K’naan – of Coca Cola’s 2010 World Cup promotional anthem fame – offering romantic platitudes (“If by chance all the stars should fall/You the first person I would call”) over 8-bit bloops and a similarly polyphonic sounding afrobeat guitar, doesn’t manage to work up the same easy joy that more accomplished Very Best songs do.
The rootless, timeless quality that the internet has forced on music means that – partially – everything sounds like world music now. Issues of image and appropriation are still relevant – as MIA’s recent revolutionary stance and penchant for truffle fries proved. But by dropping most the lighter, sunnier, more typical sounds from their previous two records – the lilting guitar riffs, the samples of white bands sampling Africa - MTMTMK’s embracing of a more consciously future-facing sound makes it a remarkably unremarkable album to listen to. This is familiar territory now, and while The Very Best may be the soft collaborationist edge of the trend – the kind that has friends who built wells in Kenya on their gap year – listening to the album you’re reminded that the world in world music has been listening to us, too. Listening to the music made with African influences is less like to staring through a window into an exotic land, and more like staring at a mirror.
Listen to MTMTMK