Following what felt like centuries, Sauti Sol finally debuted their fifth album, ‘Afrikan Sauce,’ on January 31. After letting the album marinate in our ears for a couple of months, it is safe to say this album is a continuation of the sound the band had pivoted to on their last album, ‘Live and Die in Afrika.’ Savara, Bien, Chimano, and Polycarp are no longer the good boys trying to take you to Java and buy you some coffee, they are now the guys who tell you “kama, baby uko single, si mimi na wewe tu mingle.” Though this switch up was met with some hesitation from their OG fans, it has proven to be the key to unlocking continental prominence.
The band initially teased ‘Afrikan Sauce’ towards the end of 2017 with the promise of releasing a new track every month featuring a cross-continental collaboration. First, we got ‘Melanin’ featuring Patoranking, followed by the Maleek Berry produced and Tiwa Savage assisted ‘Girl Next Door,’ capping off the Nigeria-Kenya link up with ‘Afrikan Star’ - a collaboration with African Giant Burna Boy. They then returned to Kenya by seasoning their soulful crooning on the track ‘Rewind’ with rapper Khaligraph Jones’ grit and street smarts.
The back to back bangers indicated that the album would be nothing but spectacular and this was all before the release of their super-mega-out of this planet hit, ‘Short & Sweet’ featuring Nyashinski. The harmonized choir-like intro does not prepare you for the slight Reggae kick and percussion that precede Bien declaring, ‘I think we fell in love too fast’. The layering of the vocals, the bass guitar and the slight licks of the electric guitar during the chorus captivate your ears and force your waist to whine before you hit one ‘Odi Dance’ for the road. If Kenya had Summer in July and August, this would have undoubtedly been the song of Summer 2018, it became a viral hit and showed the potential the group has to be one of the biggest acts in Africa.
‘Afrikan Sauce’ is a great album, the songs are wonderfully produced and Sauti Sol do what they do best, vocals that soothe the soul while encouraging you to break it down on the dancefloor. One of the things that gives them their special sauce is Polycarp ‘Fancyfingers’ Otieno. Without his fancy - pun intended - guitar playing, the band’s music would not give us that live production tease that we love and look forward to. Whether you want to be politically active, celebrate your heritage, or as they sing on ‘Africa’, “umekuja ku break dance, umekuja ku get down, umekuja ku take chance,” they offer a song for every mood.
With all their albums they dabble with a political or moral message, on ‘Mwanzo’ it was ‘Blue Uniform,’ ‘Soma Kijana’ on ‘Sol Filosofia’ could be argued as having a moral message, while ‘Live and Die in Afrika’ featured ‘Nerea’. This album is no different as they decry the state of the nation, singing ‘tuko pabaya leo kuliko jana, sikio la kufa haliski dawa, tuko kwa twitter tuna jibizana,’ on ‘Tujiangalie’ featuring Nyashinski. As with their last “political song,” they received backlash for offering a particular point of view that does not look at the full picture. On ‘Nerea’ they missed the fact that a woman has the right to choose what she wants to do with her body, and on ‘Tujiangalie’ they fail to see the impact that Kenyans on Twitter have in implementing fundamental change in a country that prefers silence and obedience. When the band first came to our attention they were largely seen as those sweet men who wrote love songs, however as they have evolved and come into their own identity, it is interesting to see the line they straddle as celebrities and the “boys next door.” Even the way they interact with the country has changed, they went from young men being stopped by policemen on their way to a concert (‘Blue Uniform’)to a super successful group that performs at state functions, which could be seen as a tool for the state to propagate the notion that they are open to the arts and uplifting young people interested in pursuing “unconventional” career paths. It seems as though they are on uncharted territory as they navigate their fan base, staying true to who they are as a band, and pushing the limits with their music.
‘Afrikan Sauce’ has wonderful replay value. It offers us incredible features from Zimbabwe (Jah Prayzah), Uganda (Bebe Cool), Tanzania (Vanessa Mdee), South Africa (Mi Casa), Nigeria and Kenya, and shows the range, talent, and potential of Sauti Sol. The group has shifted from the acoustic modern traditional sound they first came out with, to a more Afropop slightly R&B sound, that appeals not only to Kenyans but to the entire continent. They are undoubtedly one of the biggest pop groups in Kenya and since there are no other Afropop groups that have the same national and international prominence and reach they do, this album feels like they are coasting and not necessarily trying to surpass what they have done in the past. Tracks like ‘Love Again’ featuring C4 Pedro offer the slow and sensual sound associated with Kuduro and Angola, however, you can’t help but feel like you have heard the song before as it is reminiscent of ‘Say Yeah’ from their last album.
‘Afrikan Sauce’ is missing something that gives it that oomph and makes you take notice of the band. It definitely does not help their cause that out of the 13 songs on the album, 11 have been previously released as singles or on previously released albums - Mi Casa’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Mama Africa’ by Yemi Alade. While the original idea of releasing a song every month until the release of the album was a novel idea and a great way to hype up the album, it feels as though it would have been better as a greatest hits compilation or album featuring all of our favorite Sauti Sol songs. As Wu-Tang said, ‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me,’ and this is another thing that shortchanged the album’s potential to be as impactful as it could have been. Towards the end of 2018, the band announced that their plan to release a new song every month fell short due to financial constraints. Can you imagine the kinds of albums Sauti Sol and other artists could release in Kenya with the necessary resources?
From lack of support to lack of air time for local musicians, there are numerous complaints about the Kenyan music industry. However, the most persistent and pernicious complaint is corruption. While other countries music industries continue to develop, Kenya’s seems stagnant even though there’s an array of innovative and eclectic artists developing their own sounds. Kenya is a country that does not fully support the arts or properly aim to compensate those who push the nations cultural heritage but despite the suffocating atmosphere, Sauti Sol and other artists succeed. Currently, the band is working on solidifying their legacy and launched their label Sol Generation. They are transitioning to work on signing and developing the next generation of Kenyan artists.
This album is definitely a fantastic place to start cementing their impact on the Kenyan music industry as it showcases the best of everything they have to offer. However, the album feels like receiving a gently worn t-shirt from your sibling. You’ve borrowed it in the past, seen them wear it a couple of times, and now that you have it you appreciate it but you still want something new.