The Very Best has always been defined by geography. Vocalist Esau Mwamwaya hails from Lilongwe, Malawi, and bandmate Johan Hugo is a Swedish producer. They earned early attention with joyous samples and alterations of Western pop, transforming them into international super-jams. On their latest, Makes a King, they’re aided by guests who come with places to attach to their names: Senegalese vocalist Baaba Maal, London singer-songwriter Seye, and Chris Baio of the oh-so-New York City Vampire Weekend. Yet rather than pick up more detail in its sound, more vocabulary from more languages, Makes a King distills itself into a blurry amalgam without many specifics.
Part of that could have to do with the focused concentration of Mwamwaya’s lyrics. Though he sings in Chichewa, Malawi’s national language, the album announcement’s note that he wrote about “Malawi’s recent issues with endemic poverty and political corruption” is palpable in his expressive delivery. When Hugo was tailoring an entire album to upbeat celebrations, consistency wasn’t an issue. Tempering his electronic soundscapes to slower paces and darker tones drags the album.
That said, isolated tracks carry that depth well. The sun sets beautifully over “Mwana Wanga”, as Mwamwaya’s vocals soar majestically through flocks of delicately fingerpicked electric guitar. “Let Go” features springy bass and a simple yet hard-hitting guitar mix, the song’s title one of the rare instances of English, couched within similarly cathartic vocals that convey the same message. Later, “Sweka” could fill any dance floor across the globe; its house patterns are immediately recognizable even when Mwamwaya’s language isn’t.
The musics of Malawi, Sweden, the UK (Mwamwaya and Hugo are based in London), and America haven’t been entirely separated for hundreds of years. However, there were clearly distinctive features of these traditions that shone differently as the Very Best’s early albums turned, like many facets on a diamond. Makes a King, in comparison, feels a bit one-note, though they can still hit that one note hard.
Essential Tracks: “Mwana Wanga”, “Let Go”