It’s been a while since AKA has had anything to lose. Between his 2012 album Alter Ego and the start of 2014, AKA’s stature had swelled to extremes, practically making him king in his own lane.
Coupled with a rigorous cross-country tour schedule and the occasional flight to either Kinshasa or Ghana, not to mention constant rotation on mainstream radio stations, AKA could only be matched in stature by one other rapper – Khuli Chana, with whom he used to perform prior to his live pairing with Da Les.
Occasional Twitter meltdowns and rants about ‘local’ artists not being treated properly didn’t help much in converting detractors who deemed him a self-centred egomaniac. Apparently, rapper Cassper Nyovest also didn’t like how AKA, in his subtle way, always seemed to put down other artists. (This is believed to be the source of their much-vaunted on-line beef).
But the timing of it seems all too convenient, and is reminiscent of what happened prior to Alter Ego‘s release when AKA and L-Tido were reported to be beefing. As with now, there were pro camps on either rapper’s side, fans went at each other on social media, while both rappers’ profiles rose exponentially.
Looking at things from a fan’s point of view, the only line which may be interpreted as being a diss directed at Cassper appears on AKA’s Sim Dope track where he raps “You’ve got buzz from your singles/ that’s just luck for beginners.”
All that aside, Levels represents big singles, dancehall sessions, revised renditions of house music classics, and a deep musicality holding the whole project firmly in place. It’s an album which lounges comfortably in the Album of The Year category.
Lyrically, AKA falters when compared to artists such as Teargas’ KO (whom he duets with on the rewind-worthy “Run Jozi“) or Reason, the Motif Records master spitter who delivers a riveting guest verse on “Pressure”.
But the numbers don’t lie, the fans love him! There’s something in the genetic make-up of the producer/emcee, which makes for an admirable artist. It’s a particular understanding of dance and its fundamentals; a throwback to the spirit of Michael Jackson and the bygone era of the house music monoculture.
If AKA hopes to leave a lasting imprint, it would perhaps do him well to home in on the aspects of his personality which people gravitate towards. It’s his outspoken nature that keeps AKA on people’s minds.
Listening to Levels, one doesn’t get the sense of an opinionated artist. What the album is then a reflection of an artist under pressure while constantly being in the public eye.
The sound, the boasting — they’re more than just a part of Johannesburg’s concrete jungle aesthetic. They’re AKA’s self-prescribed antidote to the fast-paced life of life in the big city; Jozi’s car screeches and its bling are encoded as subliminal messages within the music.
AKA set out to make a classic album. Whether or not he succeeded is a matter of opinion. He did, however, craft a masterpiece serving as a reflection of the life and times of an artist who’s fighting against the constant winds of change in South African rap music.
* This review originally appears here. AKA’s since released a deluxe version of Levels. His list of growing achievements now includes being the first South African to achieve A-list playlisting on BBC 1Xtra. He recently visited Westwood’s basement and you can watch the results here.