Reviews September 20, 2017

Tokooos, the new album from the Kinshasa-born Congolese artist, musician, producer, executive producer and philanthropist, Fally Ipupa, will enthrall African music lovers. This is Fally Ipupa’s fourth solo album, and the most ambitious in years. With Tokooos, Fally is attempting to take his style--deeply rooted in Congolese rumba--mainstream. And it’s working like never before.

The word tokooos is a derivative from the Lingala word kitoko, meaning something good or a good vibe. The suffix -toko then becomes tokos, an expression coined by Fally Ipupa that eventually became the central line of his new style and music philosophy: tokooos music. Tokooos music, then, is good-vibes music. It is Congolese at its root, yet also very mainstream, urban and tres ouverte—very open—according to Fally. He wants to give fans beyond the universe of Congolese rumba a chance to have a piece of his marvelous style. In other words, tokooos music is Ipupa’s hope for a breakthrough in the mainstream European music market, particularly in Afro-francophone circles.

While the Democratic Republic of Congo has a list of world-class musicians who have marked their time, Congolese music has not blazed the African music charts since its three-decade monopoly in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s. Fally Ipupa comes from a long line of Congolese rumba masters, from Grand Kalle Kabasele from the (African Jazz) ‘50s, to the legendary Tabu Ley Rochereau (African Fiesta) and Franco Luambo Makiadi (O.K. Jazz) in the ‘60s and ‘70s; Zaiko Langa Langa of the '70s; Papa Wemba (Viva la Musica) in the '80s, to Koffi Olomide (Quartier Latin) and the Wenge Musica band of ‘90s and 2000s. For over 60 years, Africa looked up to D.R.C. for its music, style and dances, and nothing seemed to stop the continuous rise of popularity of Congolese music. For example, on Feb. 22, 2000, Koffi Olomide, one of Fally Ipupa’s mentors, became the first African to play at Paris’ prestigious Bercy Arena, selling out 17,000 seats.

Despite all the marvelous accomplishments by Congolese musicians, the European mainstream market remained elusive to Fally’s predecessors. Many Congolese greats before him were unable to truly “cross over.” Papa Wemba probably came the closest, however it remained in the field of world music, never reaching a mainstream pop audience.

Then, since the early 2000s, the African audience for Congolese music has declined with the rise of the Ivorian coupé decalé movement in the early 2000s, and West African azonto and Afrobeats from 2009 until the present. The current unprecedented rise of the Afrobeats sound has only hastened the decline in popularity of Congolese music, and the mainstream market seems unobtainable for Congolese artists who stick too closely to the rumba sound.

While Ipupa is known for his illuminating stage presence, his melancholic soft tenor voice, and his very captivating dance moves, none has helped so far to secure a mainstream presence in Europe, especially France, despite his megastar status in francophone Africa. However, Fally is different than his predecessors. He has already attained more international success than any artist of his generation, so it is safe to say he is Congo’s new face to the world, and Fally is determined to become mainstream. He recently recognized this during an interview with a BET Buzz affiliate based in France. He said, “On my fourth album, I wanted to create a bridge between Kinshasa and Paris; I have done it all in Africa, but I would like to win this French market.”

So Tokooos is the Congo’s new hope to experience a true crossover into the global music market, and have a Congolese rumba artist, based in Congo, capture the elusive mainstream markets away from home. To do this, Fally will have to capture the attention and the hearts of the francophone African diaspora in Europe.

The global rise of Afrobeats, Afro-trap and other European and American urban styles has been influenced and in some cases pioneered by first or second generation African immigrants living in major European and American cities. The importance of the African diaspora in influencing mainstream music trends can no longer be denied, especially following the rise of the Internet-savvy millennials. An African artist in the Internet era can achieve huge international success with a single song, something that would have been been impossible even in Fally’s early years. So this seems like the right moment for Ipupa to immerse himself fully in an international conquest with his music.

This album will especially marvel those music lovers who currently consume African music through the lens of urban culture, a global movement responsible for the success of urban trap music, Afrobeats, azonto, kizomba, and more. In cities like Paris, London and Brussels, musicians are mixing African culture with blends of hip-hop, r&b, Afrobeat, soukous, ndombolo, house, techno, and other styles of electronic music mixed with urban black style. The visual aesthetics are cosmopolitan, luxury brand-oriented, but also fused with ‘traditional’ African attire, a collage made popular by children of African diaspora from the inner cities of Europe and America, which has captured the mainstream attention since 2010.

Tokooos is fully decorated with current urban European sounds, a real departure from Fally’s Congolese rumba background, where singing in his native tongue Lingala was his comfort zone. In Tokooos, Fally takes a chance to go far beyond his usual style, singing some songs completely in French. The new album is filled with colorful tunes that take Fally’s music in a completely new direction.

To court international attention, he employed a few tactics. The most obvious is how many major featured artists Ipupa has on the album, especially with the caliber of the artists involved. Seven of out of the 18 songs on the album feature guest singers, mainstream urban trap, Afrobeats, hip-hop and r&b artists from Africa, France and the U.S. For example: “Yakuza” features the Nigerian superstar Wizkid; “Nidja” features Grammy Award-winner R. Kelly. Then there are the Afro-French stars: “Kiname” features the multiplatinum French rapper Booba, while “Na Lingui Ye” features the king of Afro-trap, MHD; “Mannequin” features Naza and Keblack, and Fally also features two Afro-French female stars, Aya Nakamora, an emerging r&b songstress of Malian descent, on “Bad Boy,” and rapper Shay on “Guerrier.” This is by far the most featured artists Fally Ipupa has ever had on a single album, and the highest profile. It’s not by chance, it’s by design.

The new direction is a total gamble from his first three successful albums Droit Chemin (2006); Arsenal des Belles Melodies (2009), and Power “Kosa Leka” (2013), which were Congolese rumba-based compositions. Yet even on these albums, Fally has hinted at this new direction, with a few tracks featuring successful urban artists from the U.S. and Europe. Tunes such as “Prince de Southfork” (Droit Chemin) or "Sweet Life (La Vie Est Belle)" (Power “Kosa Leka”) were a successful blend of hip-hop and r&b with Congolese rumba; “Sopeka” (Droit Chemin) featuring Paris-based hip-hop artist Benji (Neg'Marrons), “Chaise Electric” (Arsenal des Belles Melodies) featuring r&b singer Olivia, a former G-unit member.

This album is also symbolic for many reasons: Tokooos is really Fally’s second new beginning. In 2006, he began his solo career after eight years under the mentorship of Koffi Olomide with the Quartier Latin Band. He signed with Obouo Music, with David Monsoh as executive producer of his first three albums. But his new recording, Tokooos, is with a new record label, Elektra France, a major label affiliated with Warner Music France. This new relationship with a major international label marks the end of an era with producer Monsoh, a chance for the artist to heal wounds from a tainted relationship with Obouo Music and welcome in his new chapter. Everything about this new move seems promising for Fally. The promotion package is fitting for an artist of his caliber, and at the time of writing, Tokooos is capturing international attention. On the album, Fally sings in French, English and Lingala. Sonically, songs like “Boulé,” “Ça Va Allez,” “Bad Boy,” “Esengo,” “Champ” are tunes that could fit certain mainstream radio formatting in France.

The second symbolic gesture: The album was released on July 7, 2017, symbolic for the repetition of the number seven: 07/07/17. In Biblical interpretations, seven is a number of perfection, of wholeness or completeness, a gesture which will not be lost on the majority of Fally’s core fans. With this symbolism, Fally Ipupa is sending a clear message that he is a master of his craft and artistry. Fally has a lot of monikers and titles, and he recently began calling himself King Arthur. In his new song “Champ,” Fally sings “they are too little” about his competition, and adds “King Hustler” to his monikers. Following his visit to Las Vegas for the Mayweather/McGregor fight, the “Golden Child of Congo,” also known as “Trois Fois Hustler,” started to call himself the “The Greatest.”

Fally seems aware of what he is doing, and so far it looks as everything is working according to plan. He released the first single, “Kiname,” featuring Booba in December 2016. “Kiname” has the right mixture of Afrobeats, Afro-trap, rap and urban mannerisms. The theme is right on message as well, in that he praises Paris as center of movement and reminds his listeners that he “comes from far, from Kinshasa to Paris.” The video and the single caught the attention of the public in Europe, Africa and across the world. It is fair to say that the presence of megastar Booba also brought a lot of hype and attention to the undeniably successful first single: “Kiname” went certified gold, with more than 10 million in sales and streaming.

Next, Fally released “Eloko Oyo,” in April 2017. The song uses a purely traditional rhythm of the Mongo people--the second-largest ethnic group in the Congo--with a modern Congolese guitar-picking style and a very clever international production touch. His fans went wild for “Eloko Oyo,” and the song has had more palpable success than any other single Fally has released to date. “Eloko Oyo” reached over 21 million views on YouTube in just five months, surpassing his previously most-viewed video, “Original,” which reached 21 million in four years. While this number is regular viewership for artists like Booba, MHD, or R.Kelly, this is a new level of attention for Ipupa.

While we can’t quantify the overall success of Tokooos as yet, the results from the various collaborations are staggering. So far, we are able to track the album’s success through the number of new viewers to Fally’s YouTube channel and increased social media interaction and followers. Before the collaboration with Booba, Ipupa’s YouTube channel had 129,000 subscribers. A few months after their collaboration, his subscription numbers went up to over 179,000. Following the release of “Kiname” and “Eloko Oyo,” his YouTube subscription is now over 350,000, almost double the number since “Kiname” dropped in December 2016. Now, Fally’s new videos easily reach a million views in less than a week. Similarly, his Instagram followers went from 259,000 to currently over 600,000.

Tokooos comes out in the golden era of the Internet star, where numbers of views and followers are crucial to success. While at the peak of his career, Fally has a lot of catching up to do. An emerging artist today can make the money Ipupa made throughout his career with just one hit song. Following that one hit song, today’s artists can generate online followers and subscribers. The Internet marketing tools can turn a untalented artist with little or no experience into an instant sensation. Fally also mentioned this phenomenon on “Esengo”: “They all want to become a star, but with what talent? They want to become rich with what work ethic?” It is a big challenge aimed at the artists of today. It is also probably because Fally recognizes that he represents a country like Congo, which is filled with people who have raw talent, but the Congolese artists lag behind due to mismanagement, lack of knowledge of today’s marketing strategies, and lack of institutional structure. But their decline is also due to the common Congolese musician’s fear of leaving his or her comfort zone in order to try something new.

The flip side of international success? Fally has taken a direct hit from the Congolese community for his new album. Many are saying he is selling out, that he has compromised his originality in order to follow everyone else. However Fally is fully convinced that he always has a unique touch. And given the success of his single “Eloko Oyo,” with its  21 million views on YouTube in five months, he is right. This is a record for an artist coming from a Congolese rumba background. But this is nothing compared to the goals he has in mind.

Those who have followed his work for years know firsthand how focused Fally Ipupa is. He has great self confidence and believes he is on earth for a greater cause. And for now, that cause is to make a former Congolese rumba singer like himself go mainstream. It is not a challenge for him to reach francophone African kids who grew up in the inner cities of the U.S. and Europe, since his music has been part of their cultural platform from the start. But when their urban experiences receive recognition on a mainstream level, the successes that come with that recognition become a reward of the environment they occupy by default.

While he now lives part time in France, Ipupa is based musically and culturally in Kinshasa, and his career is measured by how far he will take the new generation of Congolese music. His mission is to become the first Congolese rumba artist who can crossover to the mainstream market and remain relevant for years to come, and he is poised to fulfill his destiny. Like Mayweather Jr., Fally believes he is in it to win. In the new song, “Esengo,” he describes how he sees life: “Life is panoramic, so I have arrived/Never put down my hands and never got tired/ I am seated on the throne/Where I will last forever/ My family stays behind me, we’ll make it.” He also adds in the same song, “No mountain is insurmountable/ I am yet to see the power that can stop me.”

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