Essentials: Ukweli & Xenia Manasseh Explore Minimalist Grooves On New EP, ‘Maybe’
Essentials: Ukweli & Xenia Manasseh Explore Minimalist Grooves On New EP, ‘Maybe’

Essentials: Ukweli & Xenia Manasseh Explore Minimalist Grooves On New EP, ‘Maybe’

a succinct offering of five R&B-tinged songs

When Xenia Manasseh began making waves in Kenyan music circles three years ago, her voice was rightly recognised as important. ‘Falling’ demonstrated her ability to conjure emotive tales with stunning relatability, but it also carried the worldviews of the then-23 year old. Situated primarily among those views is the ethos of collaboration, which has continued to influence the artist’s trajectory in beautiful and unpredictable ways. 

On her latest project ‘Maybe’ she works with the DJ and Producer Ukweli, who makes up one-fifth of the revolutionary East African collective EA Wave. They’re both familiar with each other’s craft, having worked intermittently since the neo-soul minimalism of “My Pride” debuted some two years ago. Ukweli’s screeching vocal samples, relaxed drums and ethereal keys had set the tone for Xenia, whose vulnerable lyricism was clearly conveyed by her emotive range. On ‘Maybe,’ those sonic experiments are traded for more assured choices. Quite poignantly, Ukweli retains the brooding elements while Xenia croons from her R&B perspective, colouring the records with the unmissable trajectory of romantic turmoil. 


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“Etoile” introduces the feathery touch that runs through the EP’s five songs, bare except for Xenia’s glittering vocals and the intermittent knock of reverberating drums. Splashes of exciting horn playing sets up an interlude-esque space between the first and second verses, while the song’s backend is stuffed with lush vocalising. The titular “Maybe” plunges the listener deeper into the world carefully curated by Ukweli and Xenia, their chemistry never failing to shimmer with understated brilliance. “Never thought love would find me,” sings Xenia in the song’s most admitting lyric, and later on painting the image of being a distant lover even though she’d rather be by his side. 

It is such instances of pristine songwriting which supplies the global superstars on Xenia’s songwriting CV: Burna Boy (for vocal contribution on “Time Flies”), Tay Iwar and American musician Teyana Taylor, among others. A student of Music Business and Management, she’s an all-round entertainer. In Xenia’s young days, she picked up instruments like the piano, drums, guitar and bass, an understanding of sound which audibly influences her beat selection. 

“Lost” is a stellar showcase of these intricacies, starting out with soulful synths before morphing into a slightly minimalist Trap-tinged record. Following the direction of her co-creator, Xenia elevates the pace of her flow, at times sleekly coming across with a rapper’s cadence and other times, relaying an effervescent Ragga-inspired flow that’s faintly reminiscent of Tems’ early music. 

While staying in the background, Ukweli’s contribution to the tape is characteristically masterful. Rather than unfurling a packed bag of tricks, he strips his synths and keys so Ms. Manasseh’s voice can emerge more purposefully. No other song on the EP demonstrates this better than “Circadian Riddim,” the emotive closer which draws from Xenia’s favoured genre of neo-soul. Bouncing with a cool gravitas, the drums possess a dusty boom bap texture while there are intricate designs within their spaces—as you’d expect, Xenia thrives on the set soundscape, taking her voice into exciting tones while maintaining narrative clarity. 

‘Maybe’ is a record that highlights the project’s sharp, succinct quality and, ending with a lush performance of Ukweli’s trumpet playing, a sense of the epic lingers long after the last note is played.