Kabza De Small’s ‘I Am the King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust’ is a creative landmark for Amapiano

When Spotify released its list of the most streamed South African artists in South Africa for 2019, it wasn’t surprising to see Kabza De Small sitting at top of the list. In a year where Amapiano fully emerged as a dominant force of the South African music mainstream, Kabza established himself as one of the biggest purveyors of the sound, and perhaps more meaningfully, he evolved alongside a subgenre that he helped introduce to a wider audience.

While there’s an ambiguity to the exact origins of Amapiano, Kabza is widely regarded as one of its earlier popularisers, going back to his 2016 debut album, ‘Avenue Sounds’. At the time, Amapiano was still establishing its credentials as a niche sound, and in the following years, the infectious blend of Kwaito basslines, Deep House, Jazz and Bacardi (a folk-dance style originated in Pretoria) steadily gained ground amongst township youths. Songs and DJ mixes spread through online forums and peer-to-peer sharing on platforms such as WhatsApp and more.

As the subgenre became synonymous with dancefloors and a bigger part of youth culture, key players began to emerge, and it’s a testament to Kabza’s star power that he’s at the top of the pyramid, especially when you consider that it is common for pioneering figures to fade into the background when a sound picks up steam commercially. Last summer, Kabza vaulted into Amapiano’s foremost superstar with ‘Scorpion Kings’, the behemoth debut collaborative project with DJ Maphorisa, which has been certified Diamond (over 100,000 in sales) by the Recording Industry of South Africa and can be easily considered as an instant classic.

Up until mid-April, and in addition to a long list of production credits and guest appearances, Kabza has delivered six more projects, including four collaborative tapes with Maphorisa and two instalments of the mostly instrumental ‘Pretty Girls Love Amapiano’ series. While this extensive catalogue is a treasure trove of the very best and biggest Amapiano records, it also makes a great case for Kabza’s creative range – the collaborations with Maphorisa were heavily steeped in full-bodied club bangers and his solo projects tilted towards being more flamboyant and experimental. All of this sets the stage for Kabza’s latest project, ‘I Am the King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust’, an ambitious 3-hour set which indulges the producer’s creative whims without scaling back on overall quality.

Very often, the work of prolific artists face the danger of serialisation, meaning that projects become a bit blurred in the minds of listeners rather than being respected and judged as individual entities. This is why they raise the stakes when it comes to projects they deem definitive—e.g. the higher level of reverence for Future’s ‘DS2’, even though the album followed a run of classic mixtapes. For an artist who tags 90+ minutes worth of music as EPs, ‘I Am the King of Amapiano’ holds the highest stakes for a Kabza project since ‘Scorpion Kings’, by virtue of its title and the sheer scope of its 27 tracks. The most important thing is that it does payoff; ‘I Am the King of Amapiano’ is a terrific front-to-back album that serves as a resounding statement of Kabza’s undeniable powers, and it immediately stands as a creative milestone for the entire subgenre.

As its sub-title connotes, the album is a two-sided affair. ‘Sweet’, the album’s first part, follows in the lineage of the ‘Pretty Girls’ series, due to its overarching lushness and melodic explorations, albeit with far more interest with incorporating guest appearances. ‘Dust’, the other part, follows the dance-driven ideals of the Scorpion Kings projects. Both sides contribute to ensure the album is in perpetual motion, however, it’s easy to spot the dichotomy between them from the very first listen.

Perhaps due to the mandatory emptiness dancefloors, ‘Sweet’ feels like the more rewarding side to listen to at the moment, with its immersive and gorgeously layered beats tilting more towards head bops and themes revolving around longing and romantic intimacy. While he still brings the party with this side, there’s an intended clarity on Kabza’s path which combines his beat-making quirks with a sharp ear for song arrangement. Building out from the drums, then adding a bevvy of very radiant piano chords and a variety of other instruments, the beats are full compositions in themselves, and even though this side is truly collaborative in the best way possible, Kabza elevates himself into the director’s seat, peeling and adding layers according to how he sees fit.

On instant standout and predictably the biggest song off the album yet, “Sponono”, Kabza enlists the star-studded line-up of Wizkid, Burna Boy, Cassper Nyovest and Madumane, curating an effortless synergy amongst his guests, over a beat that sounds like a breezy evening on a tropical island. Amidst buoyant percussion and a dominant, floating piano chord, he throws in a glockenspiel riff underneath Wizkid’s bridge, mouth whistles accompanies Cassper’s hook and quivering synths embolden Burna’s chorus, as each artist tags in and out without dropping the song’s momentum.

“Sponono” is a phenomenal feat and the brightest example in a section packed to the ear with such collaborative highlights. In as much as ‘Sweet’ clings to Kabza’s outré sensibilities, he doesn’t leave his featured artists to simply sink or swim, rather he pulls them closer into his orbit in a way that’s conscious of their respective strengths, whether it’s Wizkid finding a pocket to vibe on the hypnotic “Need You Tonight”, or creating the right ambience for Samthing Soweto’s majestically ethereal voice on the Disco-style swing of “Duze”, or ensuring Sha Sha’s glossy and soulful coexists with Madumane’s hysterical mumble on “Why Ngikufela”.

With the exception of “Ndofaya”—a song that sounds like David Guetta Amapiano mimic—the engrossing quality of ‘Sweet’ comes from Kabza’s ability to invert influences in a way that portrays Amapiano as boundless, wholesome sound beyond its distinct elements. On the backend of the section, he plays up the importance of Jazz to the subgenre, especially on the consecutive tracks, “Mapiano Blues” and “Many Faces”. Both songs feature vocal scats by Howard and sublime guitar work from XolaniGuitars, with Kabza setting and constantly adjusting the sonic framework for the melody interplay between both artists—in this setting, he comes across as a bandleader more than a beat-maker.

In comparison to the expansive edge of the preceding section, ‘Dust’ is more of a standard fare, dance-charged Amapiano project, but in the hands of Kabza, even that comes with a couple of tricks and twists of its own. Sure, the section is geared towards inspiring full-bodied swings and the endless styles of leg works, but there’s an endless list of interesting sonic details that keeps things refreshing for observing listeners. If not for its strident tempo, “iLog Drum” would fit right into the lushness of ‘Sweet’; electric zaps and sci-fi effects heighten the elaborateness of “iZolo”; there’s strobing keys and beeping sports whistle on “Sam Sokolo”; and XolaniGuitars appears on “Quta”, adding to the loudness with a digitised bass guitar riffs.

Pulling out peculiar highlights like this ultimately says more about ‘Dust’ being a complete and cohesive DJ set, rather than a playlist of high-octane songs. Through that lens, the section starts right when the party is heated, and it rides that wave for 76 straight minutes. Of course, there’s a fair share of standout moments, like Focalistic infectious chant drawling over the buzzing synth loop and wide groovy bassline of “Rabu Chupa”, the delightful table top drum pattern on “Masupa”, and the synth-pop swing meets ‘90s house vibe of “Jwaleng”.

While ‘Sweet’ relies on Kabza’s creative intuition to show his willingness to innovate relentlessly, ‘Dust’ is a stunning display of his sensibilities as a club controller. Together, both sides affirm the producer/DJ’s claim on the title: ‘I Am the King of Amapiano’. With the reception the album received upon release—all 27 of its tracks were in South Africa’s Apple Music Top 100 within days, and there’s still 11 on the same chart as time of writing—this was set to be Kabza’s summer of solo domination. It still is, but without the availability of packed clubs, sold-out concerts at home and international festival appearances, his ascension to the next level feels limited.

The irrefutable positive is that, ‘I Am the King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust’ goes beyond the conceit of self-approval—it’s a creative landmark that offers a full glare into the limitless potential of Amapiano itself. Even with its upward trajectory, there are cynics who still look at Amapiano as a fad, due to the increasing influx of producers and the revolving door of hit singles. By virtue of its existence and sheer brilliance, ‘I Am the King of Amapiano’ is a direct response to those scepticisms, proving that the sound is wide and effective enough to either be avant-garde or accessible—or both at the same time.

Listen to ‘I Am the King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust’ here.

Featured Image Credits: Instagram/thekingofamapiano

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