“There was so much electricity in this city that you felt on the verge of something all the time.” These words were posted on the Tumblr of DRC Music, a collective of Western producers, about the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa.
Led by master producer and artist Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame, DRC Music took five days to do what takes most musicians months, and they did it with an impressive array of local Congolese artists. The product is “Kinshasa One Two,” an album that’s much less governed by the intentions of the producers and much more by the people and sounds of the city. While the trademarks of each producer are certainly present—“Hallo” relies on a Gorillaz-esque brassy synth and swaggering hip-hop beat—the album’s production feels like a response rather than a guiding force, led by the sounds of the Kinshasan musicians—and their city—rather than the producers’ desires.
This marriage of styles sometimes means that the tracks sound a little alien. The mixture of repetitive chanting, soaring, arrhythmic vocals, and an eerily understated drumbeat on “Lingala” creates an unsettling atmosphere that feels more creepy than compelling. On this track, the delay effects on the vocals and the jittery drum machine beat serve only to destabilize what seems to be an otherwise traditional song.
The other tracks, though, display just the right balance of organic sounds and sleek production. However, other than a pervasive excellence of execution, there are few similarities between the tracks. The most effective songs on “Kinshasa One Two” are structured around the voices of native Kinshasans. “African Space Anthem (A.S.A)” is an upbeat rap accompanied by a rapid triplet beat, whereas the a cappella fourth track, “Love,” strips this aesthetic down to its bare essentials. These songs display the incredible creative depth of Kinshasan singers, and deliver a multifaceted portrait of the city.
Songs like “Lourds,” a slow jam that sounds appealingly like it was recorded live in a dingy club, expand the record’s musical palette to incorporate denser instrumentation. “Respect of the Rules” is wholly instrumental except for a few short vocal samples, and it centers on a driving beat punctuated by handclaps and colored with both sharp synths and airy flutes. The stripped-down “We Come From the Forest” is a chaotic frenzy of intricate drumming, plinking marimbas, and call-and-response chanting. The production on the more layered instrumental tracks is least incongruous, and these songs contribute to the record’s authentic feel.
Though the feeling of authenticity evoked in the less-produced tracks is potent, some of the album’s most incongruously Western and African tracks still manage to convey a distinct national character. “Ah Congo” features a hypnotic mélange of big, echoing samples of African choirs and unsettlingly low, muttering speech, produced with heavy reverb. “If You Wish to Stay Awake” lives up to its title, with its nightclub-ready pounding bass and whooshing cymbals. “Customs” evolves surprisingly as it rolls along, anchored by a lurching, ominous bass riff that, despite its almost funk sound, works remarkably well with the track’s atmospheric bells.
Perhaps the album’s only big misstep comes in the first half of the two-part closer, “Departure,” a symphonic-minded mess of interesting but incoherent ideas that feels out of place, especially at the end of the already borderline incoherent album. Ultimately, “Kinshasa One Two” is most powerful at its simplest. This is perhaps epitomized by the poignant “Virginia,” which is composed solely of a monotonous, percussive synthesizer and the layered voices of Kinshasans going about their daily lives—a mother singing her child to sleep, a man and woman conversing in hushed tones. It adds an emotional depth to the album and serves as a very salient reminder that the thematic, tonal, and emotional core of this seemingly eclectic album is its role as an aural portrait of Kinshasa: chaotic, energetic, occasionally messy, but undeniably electrifying.