Rapper, songwriter and producer Vocaliz was born and raised in Cameroon, but according to the title track of his debut solo album Afrikan in New York, even if he wasn’t he would likely be labeled as being African. The award-winning vocalist has set out to examine both edges of the multiculturalism sword in the U.S. with this album, and in his usual articulate, entertaining and earnest fashion, he achieves that goal and much more.
Vocaliz is well-known in hip hop, both in the underground and the mainstream. His unique blend of hip hop vocal flavor and West African-style beats and musicality has earned him finalist spots in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition and the USA Songwriting Competition this year, but Vocaliz began to make his name long before those accolades. He began studying music in Cyprus and released an album called Painful Healing with producer Afran, which was very well received in the Mediterranean, West Africa and Europe. He is probably most known in the U.S. for his uplifting yet hard-hitting single in 2015 called “In Love With Life,” which was featured heavily on MTV and VH1.
While “In Love With Life” was also very NYC-centric and it’s clear that Vocaliz gets a lot of his inspiration from the city, it’s also clear that with Afrikan in New York, the artist wanted to get much more personal and to bring more of his African roots to the surface in terms of both music and subject matter. The best example is the afore-mentioned title track which discusses what it’s like to be African in New York (and likely the wider America). This track also has an interesting melding of a heavy hip hop beat with a melody which seems to be made from an electronic variation of a North or West African instrument called the mbira. It adds to the point of this track, but also adds a really different spin on the standard underground hip hop track.
This style mashup seems to be thematically present throughout the album, from African-and-dancehall-inspired beat syncopations like in “Out of My Mind” and “My Participation” to the way Vocaliz styles his vocals in tracks like “At the Speed of Love” That said, African music and beats are clearly not the only style Vocaliz has learned from, as there are heavy electronic, jazz and even rock elements throughout the album. A number of tracks like “Call Me,” “Heaven Bound” and “So Digital” have EDM-style trap and even house beats, while still others like “Oh Na Na” and “May Be” have intros and melody overlays derived from jazz and blues. The album’s a melting pot, just like New York, and just like Vocaliz’s style.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call Afrikan in New York one of the best indie or underground hip hop albums of the year, and it’s easy to see why the the John Lennon Songwriting Competition judging committee agrees, among others. Vocaliz worked with a number of well-known producers on this album like Tone Jones and Kace the Producer who were able to help him realize this commentary on American music and culture, and the result is nothing short of stunning. If you discover one “new” hop hop artist this year, make it Vocaliz. This album is one for the books, and it’s going to be great to see what he comes up with next.