‘Zulu Man with Some Power’, Nasty C’s first major-label release is an ambitious selection of 20 tracks, which lay claim to his kingly status. The stakes may be high, but the Durban city legend proves time and time again that he’s leading the new vanguard of hip-hop stars who are emerging from all corners of the continent.
In the post-digital age, social media has become the fastest way for audiences to suss out whether their favorite artists have new music coming. One key indicator, is the subtle clues laid bare on their social media in the weeks or months leading up to the memorable drop. Their social media page, usually Instagram, is cleared of its previous posts and replaced by new posts all geared towards the upcoming release in hopes that everywhere you turn, there is a reminder of what’s to come. Wizkid’s been known to do this in the past, Odunsi the Engine did it with his surprise EP Everything You Heard Is True, and South African rapper, Nasty C ushered in his latest album ‘Zulu Man with Some Power (ZMWSP)’ in the same way, which seems to have paid off, seeing as it set a new record for the most pre-adds for an upcoming album on Apple Music.
Though the events of the year have adversely affected us all in different ways, the rapper, producer, and songwriter has been having a good run so far. Back in March, he joined the ranks of African artists catching the ears of major international labels, signing a joint venture deal with Def Jam Records. A month later, he had released a visual EP ‘Lost Files’ to whet appetites for the new album, and then followed this up two months later with the arrival of a collaborative mixtape tilted ‘Zulu’ with Dj Whoo Kid. Needless to say, the 23-year-old rapper is putting in the work and then some, and this proficiency in playing the long game shone thorough, as he released ‘ZMWSP’, his third studio album in four years.
Nasty C had to do all he could to make sure he was ready to take on the world’s stage, and now, the Durban city hero needs no introduction as his public stature has gone to new heights. Although his massive cult-like following alone in South Africa is enough indication of his steady incline over the years, it would be a disservice to the great strides that the rapper has been making around the globe. Three years ago, he featured French Montana on “Allow” a standout off his debut album rerelease ‘Bad Hair Extensions’ and then further down, he landed an A$AP Ferg feature on monster-hit “King” (currently sitting at 8.4 million views on Youtube) off his sophomore album ‘Strings and Bling’. His bruising ambitious raps were never made to be restricted to the coastal shores of Durban, but rather soar farther into the world at large and find a host of new listeners. Where his sophomore project endeared him to global listeners as a rap star on the rise while attracting a double-platinum certification by RiSA certification guidelines, ‘Zulu Man with Some Power’ tips the scale a bit further, as Nasty C dips deeper into his artistic bag emerging as a well-seasoned artist, with no restraints in his neatly packed kiss-offs (“niggas made the worst of decisions then wanna doubt mine”) and boasts (“talking stake over overpriced stake”).
While Africa to the world is a popular rallying cry of the continent’s artists who are making trailblazing milestones all around the world, covering artists from Burna Boy to Tiwa Savage, it is noticeable in these conversations that the dominant afropop genre garners more attention than that of hip-hop/rap emerging from the continent. This does not by any means suggest that rappers in these parts are not receiving considerable fanfare – they are, as seen from the careers of artists like Sarkodie, Runtown, trap-leaning newcomer, Rema, AKA, and more. Yet, their rewards are far and few between, as hip-hop and its perceived foreign aesthetics have not yet won over the African ear in comparison. In fact, the most substantial takeaway from ‘ZMWSP’ is the realisation that Nasty C actually deserves the legendary status he constantly ascribes to himself and so, the fact that a rapper is enjoying this much mainstream success today (“King Shit” was the biggest song in the world at the time of its release) is a remarkable feat that must be celebrated. African music has long been synonymous with afrobeats and afropop–becoming the blanket terms for genres coming out of Africa–and though Nasty C is not averse to hopping on an afropop record, he’s not trying to conform to perceptions of what African music should sound like. He tells Okay Africa, ‘I want the world to know there’s more than just Afrobeats in Africa” and on his latest project, he definitely caps off an incredible run so far: it’s hard to find any new-gen artist in rap who can touch what he’s achieved within the same timeframe.
Unlike his previous projects, ‘ZMWSMP’ isn’t an introductory foray into the rapper’s mind, and if you’ve been paying attention to the kid then you should already know what he’s done to get here. He’s not concerned with painting a picture of the hostile and chaotic life on the streets as he did on ‘Strings and Bling’, here he’s just doing rap shit and looking to the world for answers. Bragging about your successes or rapping about your hustle is part of the hip-hop narrative and Nasty C makes sure he embeds this into his album. It’s the flashy talking, the profane boasts, the braggadocious swagger, and the glamorous list of everything his newfound fame and money can buy. It feels like he’s ticking off items on his checklist and enjoying the spoils of his hard work so far: we hear him narrate stories of LA nights where he throws ‘a whole lotta ones’ in the strip club on “Palm Trees”, he converses with God while high on shrooms on “King Shit” and keeps a separate account for his shoes and weed on “Steve Biko”. Whoever his enemies are, they can’t be too happy, because Nasty C is living the rapper life, and every line is delivered with an audible smirk to the adversaries who doubted him.
Each song is accentuated by a boast and he spits rhymes that only he can successfully marry together. In a similar vein as Meek Mill’s legendary brag-filled album opener “Dreams and Nightmares”, Nasty C’s “King Shit” has the potential to become a cult classic. It strikes the right balance between boastful, inspirational, and humble while setting the tone for what’s to come. He starts off singing acapella, his protean voice effortlessly running through memorable one-liners. He’s at the top of his game and even though that’s enough to earn him the highest bragging rights, he’s still humble, acknowledging God’s love through it all. Throughout the album, he maintains this balance, reminding you that he has beat the odds to rise to the top, but with a proclivity to remain humble. On “Overpriced Steak”, he admits that this is because he isn’t used to this new lifestyle and this bleeds into “Feeling” where we witness the pressures that come with attaining wealth at such a young age but “Lose Some Win Some” refocuses the message on grinding till everyone around him eats. His rapping is effortlessly relentless, and he doesn’t ride the beat so much as he decimates it.
For most of the project, Nasty C goes at it alone, demonstrating his slick ability to move from one topic to another. On “How Many Times” he raps about his come up with intensity, but rather than open up about what he’s had to go through, he leaves it to the imagination, switching between singing and rapping to drive his message home. “Sad Boys” treads similar lines, his melancholic singing makes the boastful message more haunting than it seems. Every song is a reminder that he’s well paid, flexing and he’s having fun while doing so, and why won’t he? When he’s got his mentor T.I on not one but two tracks off the project. But, rather than boast his way through 20 tracks, Nasty C also spruces things up with more romantically-inclined numbers. The Ari Lennox-assisted “Black and White” is a soulful and amorous inclusion, endearing itself to listeners from the very first listen. There aren’t many lines as romantic as Nasty C rapping “I think that you’re heavenly sent or better yet, girl, you make heaven make sense” as they both deliver confessional, open-wound neo-r&b infused with nostalgic hip-hop cadences. This stands in contrast to the rhythmic “Ababulali” which is actually a love letter to the rapper’s father who only came around to his son’s musical inclinations just recently. Here, love is talked about in terms of devotion and generosity being poured back into our loved ones. Our parents form the basis of our interaction with the world, and though Nasty C’s earliest interactions with his father regarding his music career weren’t a model example, he still testifies to his dad’s hand in making him a better man by setting a standard that he works to reciprocate in his lifetime.
Nasty C also doesn’t fail to address the gargantuan elephant in the room. At just 23, he’s been doubted by old rap heads for his experimental flows but on “How Many Times” he sends a simple message: “I’m humble as a fucking child, I’m on they neck though”. Just like Abuja has Psycho-YP and Benin has Rema, so also does Durban have Nasty C. You can’t talk about hip-hop currently in South Africa without including Nasty C’s name in conversation, and that is just an honest testament to how hardworking the 23-year-old has been in the last couple of years. The Durban rapper has had a storied rise, first breaking out as a rap wunderkind amongst his peers circa 2013, but then swiftly rising to the position of rap royalty. He quickly distinguished himself from his adversaries, choosing to rap mostly in English but on ‘ZMWSP’, he delivers a watershed moment rapping his first song entirely in Zulu. Armed with a more resonant origin story, Nasty C shares with Apple Music that ‘[he] wanted to make it cool for people to say, I’m Zulu, Xhosa, this or that’ again–to take pride in it” and that was exactly the energy he brought to “Zulu Man”. His South African heritage features as a badge of honour throughout the album. He rather audaciously compares himself to the late anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko on the project’s second track named after him. Art that reflects reality can be triggering, and in a time of continued racial tensions, comparing oneself to a rebel or freedom fighter is making a political statement, whether intended to or not. Nasty C, indeed, does share that it was important to use his platform as an artist to honour a legendary changemaker and by paying homage, he inadvertently places an expectation on himself to walk in their magnanimous shadow. Whether he achieves these lofty ambitions or not is beside the point, he’s got the confidence of someone who has nothing to prove to anyone but himself.
Pro-blackness resurfaces as a theme on the T.I-assisted “They Don’t” where both rappers air their frustrations about the plight of black people in the world today. Rappers exploring the plight of blackness in America is hardly new, but there is something about the way it is handled here that sounds resonant and radical. The names of black lives that have been unfairly lost to police brutality are mentioned and put on center-stage here: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and more. More than just a rallying cry, Nasty C’s slick, scanting singing rouses aversion to the uniform and systems that unjustly takes black lives and not just in America but in a host of other Africa countries including the rappers own home country where last week, a young man by the name of Nathaniel Julius was shot and dumped outside a local hospital where he later died following a robbery in Johannesburg. Residents of the Eldorado Park community took to the streets to protest the boy’s death at the hands of the police resulting in hours of unrest between protesters and police in the area. Given the tone from the top and the grassroots anger, it’s a surprise this confrontation didn’t come sooner. But in a time where fans are more critical of how celebrities engage in civil rights activism, using your art as a medium for exposing some of the injustices in the world is a step in the right direction. When he sings “can never let the guap ruin me”, it shows because Nasty C has not lost touch with the people who have anchored him to greatness, no matter how long the bank account currently sits. Hip-hop/rap has always represented the voice of the people, the people often obscured and silenced, and starting right from the project’s artwork, we see a world that isn’t quite as glamorous as it appears at first glance. Under all the vibrant colours and beauty, is a murky swamp which attracts snakes and otherworldly creatures–representative of the life Nasty C raps about.
Nasty C could not have predicted that the summer of his big-label debut and album would coincide with a summer of death, protest, and violence but ‘ZMWSP’ somehow unfurls the complexities of this year. The pandemic-induced lockdowns have been a stark reminder that pain and fortune often live in tandem and to his credit, Nasty C delivers a selection of songs that offer a way to contemplate and be present in the moment. More than anything, the project is a transportive listening experience and that is due in large part to its futuristic production, which exists in almost perfect harmony with Nasty C’s soothing vocals. “Feeling” draws similar lines to emotionally layered numbers like Roddy Ricch’s “Prayers To The Trap God” and Bella Shmurda’s “Omnipotent” by soundtracking dalliances with spirituality. The horns and soulful keys in the background provide the perfect bedding for Nasty C’s biblical allusions that suggest his steps were divinely ordered right from his birth. When he raps chip-on-the-shoulder lines like “When y’all say the names of our legends, y’all better shout mine”, they come off more clairvoyant than outright cocky, because you can almost imagine a future in which that could one day be possible. With a Def Jam deal, it’s hard to imagine the young rapper not walking in similar footsteps to the great labelmates before him like Jay-Z and Big Sean. Many know Nasty C for his killer flows, but may not be aware that the rapper is also an incredible producer and this reflects in the way the drubbing, buoyant production dictates the album’s mood swings. But he’s not only to praise for this as he gets help from a legendary team of award-winning international producers like Beat Butcha, ATL Jacobs, No I.D, Bank Roll Got It, G Koop, and more who are familiar with his air-tight flows.
The project’s international features also underscore the envious extravagance and glitz of Nasty C’s new lifestyle. Each year, his collaborations grow more ambitious and though we get exciting features with YSL’s Lil Keed and Dreamville’s Ari Lennox, this writer can’t help but feel gutted to learn that we missed out on a Nasty C and Burna Boy collaboration which the rapper blames on “label shit”, during a recent conversation on Cuppy’s Africa Now station on Apple Music. Burna Boy who has just released his third major-label album ‘Twice As Tall’ would have been a monumental inclusion to an already great body of work, but it’s hard to imagine it existing in a world as dystopian as the one we’re currently in now. Maybe that’s why label decisions have led to its postponement, waiting out a time when the world is in a better position to assemble and party, regardless, a co-sign from the African Giant would be a new badge on Nasty C’s heavyweight belt while mutually benefiting Burna Boy who is yet to collaborate with any of the new-gen artists carving out their own niche in the music industry apart from Buju.
Clocking in just under the 60-minute mark, the inescapable allure of ‘ZMWSP’ is the firm reminder that hip-hop doesn’t exist only on the Western shores but lives and takes on new life within different people and sub-cultures borrowing from a wider range of influences endlessly at their disposal. This record feels like an awakening and it could very well sit comfortably amongst inebriated guests at a breezy roof-top parties in New York or under the twinkling lights of humid clubs in Johannesburg, it’s transnational. Artists like Nasty C deserve to enjoy as much mainstream success as their hip-hop counterparts across the shores, and although Western validation and award shows in general are outdated and inherently flawed, it won’t be far off to envision a rapper like Nasty C confidently joining the ranks of the next XXL Freshman class, which till today has only seen two rappers of African descent.
With ‘ZMWSP’ he sets the record straight–he’s a rapper rapper. Though he’s a long way from his debut on the scene in 2013, he seems to be handling it all in great strides, and he very well could be on the cusp of an explosion into superstardom. The project is, as the name suggests, teeming with the unfettered power from the boy from Durban with big dreams, and by our calculations, there’s more than just some power in him.