Despite all odds, every time Sub Pop seems like its ridden current trends to their end, it somehow pulls itself back from the brink of irrelevance. After the grunge bubble burst in the late ‘90s, Sub Pop bet large on Internet-bolstered indie rockers like the Shins and Wolf Parade. Lately, Sub Pop has been betting its future on a genre that would have seemed impossible to Sub Pop singles collectors in 1989: arty hip-hop. With the collapse of Def Jux, and the decreased impact of Decon, Sub Pop has suddenly become the label for left of left-field hip-hop, as Shabazz Palaces is now the label’s most critically lauded group, and signees like THEESatisfaction and Spoek Mathambo fill out the roster between white dudes with guitars.
The latter is who brings us here, as after his debut album, Mshini Wam, caught positive hype, Sub Pop snagged Spoek Mathambo up. He put out the brief EP, Put Some Red On It, in 2011, and now he’s out with Father Creeper, his sophomore album. Where Mathambo’s last two releases pointed towards some great creative well bubbling under middling results, it turns out the genre-smashing, uneven results are just what to expect from Mathambo. However, Father Creeper is his greatest achievement thus far, succeeding, if nothing else, as demanding listeners to enter his warped headspace.
Though his occasional flair for rapping and South African afro-futurism will have him lodged firmly in the rap section of your local indie store, Spoek’s music is undeniably more palatable to the average Sub Pop devotee than Shabazz Palaces’ deconstruction of rap or THEESatisfacion’s neo-soul boom-bap. He blends too many musical forms to entirely list (occasional soul, South African traditional, jittery New Wave, and on and on), but it’s not hard to imagine him as an opener for Washed Out. Lead single “Let Them Talk” is a perfect distillation of Spoek’s musical milieu: while Talking Heads guitars collide with electro production, Pacific Northwest experimentation hits Spoek’s soulful lyrical readings. The buzzing holdover from the EP, “Put Some Red On It,” is actually the album’s strongest cut, with dry drum percussion beating out underneath Spoek’s lyrical diversions into forced marriage, and being an undertrained soldier in the sub-Sahara. If nothing else, Father Creeper is the most politically charged Sub Pop album in ages, even if references to “snorting gun powder” and “you’re a hunter gatherer” are buried in between abstract lyrical scraps.
In a recent article in the New York Times magazine on another South African rap export, Die Antwoord, the case is made that apartheid breaking was a great thing for South African art (mainly, white-made South African art, which, yikes), because it freed up Africans to just go for it with everything, trying to make authentic art in a new political paradigm. That freedom to throw anything at everything is the funnest part about Mathambo and Father Creeper (this is a guy who did a pitched down version of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” and made this video to go with it), even if some of the genre experiments don’t work as well as the others (“Grave” the closing movement, sends the album off weakly). Mathambo might not yet make great albums, but I’m ready to follow him wherever he goes next.