ZAKEE’s self-styled all-caps rendering of his name might suggest his debut album, Assimilations, is an audacious look at me, look at me affair. The half-Senegalese West Philadelphia native’s release has racked up a score of accolades from the blogosphere which could be cause for hubris; MTV Iggy’s “Top 20 Debuts of 2011” is chief among them. The product, however, is instead winsome polyrhythmic New-Wave more suited for background listening as a day trip unfolds rather than a more thematically focused collection. The LP’s gurgling basslines and serene, dramatic compositions amount to an oxymoron for the ears. Honey-sweet vocals dripping over and in between edgy beats hold Assimilations together from start to finish.
Inspired by an extended working episode in Brazil supporting a tour headlined by Erykah Badu, the multimedia artist concocted a jam-brew flavored by trips to Rio’s famous Copacabana and nights spinning in the city’s labyrinthine favelas. The album’s third track, “Glory,” features craggy synths and Tunde Adebimpe-like crooning (the song’s video plays like a visual postcard from Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela) and the album opener, “Dark Crystal,” features a posthumous appearance from Brazilian musical figurehead Vinicius de Moraes and Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya. Album highlight “Freedom,” is a rousing fever dream of strident, lightweight meditation on–what else, liberation–that sounds like a strain of the instrumentals on BLK JKS’ After Robots.
Elsewhere, on cuts like “Shadow” and “Double Up,” ZAKEE’s hazy enunciation that oftentimes matches the tone and effect of Assimilations’ more abstract fare, fails to translate effectively when he raps. His rhymes are pedestrian and often collapse into rundowns of clichéd braggadocio that don’t quite go with the spirit of the record in its entirety. From “Double Up”: “And she walk husky/Like a full-breed/Stink the track up/Red like a nose bleeds/And the greed boy, standing like you’re so tall/Push the SL swinging like Donkey Kong.” The raps feel like what walking on the sand in sneakers might be like. It works, I guess, but why trudge along in sneaks when it’s scorching, and when going barefoot just makes more sense?
Assimilations is a light exercise through what is at times thoughtful subject matter, with groovy influences from a diasporic trio: Senegal, Rio de Janeiro, and Philly. ZAKEE deserves credit for introducing himself and his music in a form that strays from what’s become the pop musical equivalent of a bildungsroman, and for undertaking the task of describing assimilations that are both social and musical. That said, his arrangements coalesce much better when complemented by lyrics that blend in with the airy vibe he constructs, and not with rapid-fire glib talk.
- Niela A. Orr