We live in strange times.
Besides all the other shit, we have charlatans calling themselves “influencers” when they wouldn’t know influence if it was Jedi-mind-tricked into them. Back in the day, “influencers” were called trendsetters and, well, that term had a bit more gravitas to it. Trendsetters aren’t about pushing some bullshit on the public for a few bucks, but rather, they are about pushing boundaries and setting the pace for culture around them by forging their own path. In this breath, Spoek Mathambo has always been a trendsetter.
I still remember the first time I heard Spoek Mathambo. It was on “Bang on the Drum” with Watkin Tudor Jones and Sibot and it was an eye opening and life-shaping moment. As a teen, I never knew such forward-thinking creativity existed in South African music until then. I was too busy listening to South African bands with whiny American accents. Since that day, I’ve kept close tabs on all 3. Each of them have- for better or worse -continued to push their limits for nearly two decades. I’d say Spoek is in the “for better” camp as he is consistently putting out work that adds to the culture and accurately reflects the zeitgeist. It should come as no surprise to you then that Spoek Mathambo’s latest album Tales of the Lost Cities, continues that tradition and takes it even further than before.
Tales of the Lost Cities is very much an album located within this time and place; it reflects the danger and depression of life in South Africa in 2020- although musically it draws influence from all across the African diaspora. Lyrically, it’s an accurate portrayal of the times but like most of Spoek’s music, it melds the sounds of the past and present to create something familiar yet futuristic. On Tales of the Lost Cities, it seems as though Spoek really wants to remind people that while he’s spent the last few years showing everyone that he’s a talented producer, artist, and filmmaker; he’s never lost his ability to rap. He deftly shows off his rapping skills throughout the album, switching up flows and cadence over a wide variety of beats. One thing you can always give Spoek credit for is that no matter how much he switches things up, he always sounds authentically himself, no matter the manner of iteration.
The album is political as ever and Spoek does not shy away from some of the toughest aspects of modern South African life. Looking at the tracklistings, “Anatomy of a Campus Rape Riot” sticks out first and when you eventually get to it on the album, brace yourself because it’s exactly what it says on the box. The violence of daily South African life is a regular theme on the album. From the infectious “eGoli (The Jackers Theme)”, which speaks of being hijacked in Jozi with snares that come through with gunshot-like ratatats, to “Jimmy Comes to Jozi”, which tells the tale of how big-city dreams can at times turn to nightmares. Parliamentary quotes are used throughout- the album just in case you were doubting that this is very much a political album. It’s something Spoek has experimented with before but on “The Greedy Always Want More” and “Keeping Score”, the entire songs are quotes from speeches essentially arguing against each.
There’s so much I want to say about Tales of the Lost Cities, and Spoek in general, but word counts are a thing and a deadline looms, so let me just say this: personally, I think Spoek Mathambo is one of the most important artists in South Africa today and Tales of the Lost Cities is his most important album to date.