Reviews June 4, 2014
Kenyan Rap: Octopizzo's Chocolate City
For those unfamiliar with Kenyan rap, the release of Chocolate City, the debut album from Octopizzo, will serve as a great introduction to one of Kenya’s strongest forms of popular music. For those more familiar with Kenyan rap, Octopizzo is a familiar face. Octopizzo has produced three mixtapes: S.O.N., Y.G.B., and The White Shadow. His most popular mixtape is S.O.N., which currently stands as the best-selling mixtape in Kenya, was released in 2008. Chocolate City is his debut album, and the first to be released internationally, reflecting the increasing importance of the young rapper and marking the next step to putting Kenyan rap on the map. Octopizzo was born Henry Ohanga, in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, and indeed, in Africa. Octopizzo recognizes his upbringing in Kibera as one of his main musical influences. His childhood influence can be heard in songs such as "Voices of Kibera (V.O.K.)" where Octopizzo transports his fans to Kibera: his neighborhood, the place where he went to school, where he started rapping and founded the ghetto collective Y.G.B. (Young, Gifted and Black). Aside from the major impact Kibera had on his life, Octopizzo credits some of his musical influences to artists such as Chino XL, Big L, KRS, Diabolic, EPMD, Copyright, CL Smooth, Immortal Technik and Supernatural. Octopizzo’s album is exactly what one would expect from a top rapper like himself: some entertainment, a bit of social criticism, a little self-reflection, and great beats and rhymes. The album begins with “Swag,” starting things off with some slow, seductive r&b rhythms. Later songs, such as “Toboa” and “Voices of Kibera (V.O.K.)” continue this early 2000s sound. “Biz ni Biz” also catches attention with its heavy bass and quick lyrics, bringing back old-school freestyle techniques to Kenya for a new appreciation. Finally, “Black Star” stands out with its use of light synthesizer sounds such as bell chimes, snare drum and high-hat to create a stirring anthem for Kenyan empowerment. Within the first few minutes of the album, it is clear why Octopizzo has consistently placed on Kenya’s lists of top 10 and even top five artists. His gift for rhyme and word choice is impressive, especially given that so many artists currently aim for a strong flow in their rap, sometimes losing the essence of the aesthetic poetry that has long defined the genre. Also, Octopizzo's use of Sheng, the street slang originally used by gangs in the poorest corners of Nairobi and now considered the lingua franca of Nairobi's youth, is a critical aspect of the album. Sheng catches both listeners of Swahili and English, providing a rich, distinct sound that non-Sheng speakers can dig without fully understanding the words. At 25 years old, Octopizzo is a multitalented artist, with a retail line of watches, wristbands and handmade "Kibera-Bling," as well as guiding a slum tour called Chocolate City Tours. Octopizzo is not a Kenyan rapper waiting to be discovered, but a businessman and artist demanding well-deserved recognition.