Album Review: Spoek Mathambo – Tales From The Lost Cities [TEKA Records; February 2020]

‘Remember back when good rap was just a cool dance hit / Even though it wasn’t saying shit’, Paris spat on his militant debut The Devil Made Me Do It. Released only three months before Rodney King’s assault, it made an accurate prediction about the future of hip-hop. Try looking up a Top Records of All Time list and you’ll see that pre-1999 titles outnumber the rest by 10 to 1. Now, that could be just some old farts stuck on memory lane. But it could also mean the scene really is brimming with bling, swagger and hot air.

Either way, Spoek Mathambo (born Nthato Mogkata)’s Tales From The Lost Cities doesn’t indulge in nostalgia or mediocrity. Bona fide conscious hip-hop in marked contrast with AKA’s flashy cloud rap and Yugen Blakrok’s astro-hop, this is a current affairs programme about South Africa presented by Mogkata and his posse – be it rampant corruption within ANC, sexual violence at the University of Cape Town or surviving another day in Hillbrow.

Staying true to the spirit of the Golden Age, Mogkata has cut together a sizzling mix of drum loops, scratches and chopped up vocal samples with hard-hitting lyrics and zero clichés. Here and there the local vernacular can become a barrier, yet the message is always loud and clear. Acerbic rhymes keep coming thick and fast in boom bap opener ‘Umhlaba Wethu’ and gritty G-Funk ‘eGoli (The Jackers Theme)’. After heavy-stepper ‘Kroonocyde (Gini Index) featuring Raiko and savage ‘Jimmy Comes to Jozi’ with Spizzy kicking it up a notch, their definition of the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ will always stay with you.

That’s not to say the album is devoid of hope. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Carla Fonseca (aka Manteiga) brings her soulful energy into play in Walk with Me and the album closer, ‘Kings & Queens’, is a divine ode to the shape of things to come. When Vuyo muses on the future where ‘art comes first’ and ‘beautiful is better like Hugh Masakela and Nelson Mandela’, we understand why some artists never pass their sell-by date.