Essentials: Navio’s ‘Vibes Out The East’ Is A Stellar Addition To His Catalogue
a colourful body of work
a colourful body of work
Over the years, Navio has morphed into a complete representation of a rapper. He’s often made incursions into the world of pop (see collaborations with Vanessa Mdee and Burna Boy), and represents an authentic East African edge in his sound even when his lifestyle leans more towards being cosmopolitan. He’s also an avowed pioneer of the Ugandan rap scene, with his formation of the Klear Kut rap group in 2000 earning Navio national acclaim just some years into his teens.
The burly, dreadlocked rapper has become a face synonymous with East African music, but he doesn’t rest his renown solely on his more-popular efforts. He’s an artist still connected to particular Ugandan experiences, and moves into the gaze of an ambassador on his songs. ‘Vibes Out The East (VOTE),’ the rapper’s sixth solo album, is constructed on these ideals. Its seventeen songs pull themselves closely, connected by Navio’s unwavering philosophies and the production’s sunny outlook. With the conventional style of stitching collaborators’ strengths into his music, ‘VOTE’ shines with a glamorous feel, which is admirably purposeful considering we aren’t so far off the period of December festivities.
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Right from the start, “Hamadi” reveals a rustic element to the album’s direction. A guitar that sounds cut from the vibrant poignancy of street musicians, accompanied by Elly Wamala’s hook which evokes the tribal splendour of the griots, resonantly melding with Navio’s westside rap swag. “If there’s a heaven for a G, then my dad checked in,” he raps in the second verse, a slice of heart in a record streaked with affirmative lyrics. From then on, the project maintains that vulnerability, most captured by Nviiri The Storyteller in its early parts. “Let’s Do It (Tukoleele)” is breezy in a way reminiscent of M.I’s classic love records, but Navio’s very much in-sync with Nviiri’s direction, their voices very soulful in mirroring each other.
Such records are paired with more boisterous cuts, stretching onto Navio’s venerable knack for rap anthems. “Cold” and “Utajua Hujui” are stellar standouts, the former featuring the duo of PYLO and The Mith, his friend and co-member of Klear Kut. Their chemistry results in highs, exchanging bars at some point as their collaborator unfurls bright notes. He goes the solo path on the latter, lacing heavy bars over a haunting drill-dented beat. In several ways a clever lyricist, he’s able to go from “cripple they flow and they coming up lame” to “she told me shoot my shot, and I’m nice with a free throw,” switching the flow from menacing to sensually suggestive without any hitches.
A stirring with Ben Poi and Stogie T on “Extra Mile” sees him skate free on a nostalgic candy of drums and piano loops. Ben’s hook moves fiercely towards the commitments owed a lover, and the rappers move in a more pointed direction, Navio’s ever-smooth delivery hitting sweet spots in the beat’s count. The South African rap veteran is as reliable as ever, sleek in his technical prowess and constant humour, chipping in the revealing lyric, “Iceberg Slim, niggas hate and then vanish”, which is perhaps indicative of old beef with the Nigerian rapper. Edge remains an important aspect of music, and even when the honey-tone production across the album requires more specificity, the rapping comes to steer the boat. Alliance, in the finest sense.
The album’s late moments are attended with a spiritual focus, and “Father Guide Us” very much embodies that trait. Over lush, visceral production, Navio sings beautifully in search of a lighted path, enlisting a choir to infuse more gravitas. Rapping-wise, he’s conceptual by adopting the third-person POV, and elsewhere leaning into his roots by singing in his native language.
Tyra Chantey makes an excellent guest on “Water,” her luscious vocals as pristine as the element being described. Four tracks away, Navio closes out the album with the summery “Rare” which features Ugandan musician Shena Skies, and her singjay tradition—an amalgam of singing and deejaying—influences the production, glistening with Caribbean overtones matched with frequent bursts of bold electronic synths. It’s a colourful end to a colourful album, and for a musician who began professionally over two decades ago, Navio’s fine grasp on the contemporary is a great artistic feat.
Featured image credits/Israel Ajayi