Album Review: Cassper Nyovest - Tsholofelo Featured
Cassper Nyovest has entered the building. Eight years after dropping out of high school to pursue his dreams of being a rapper, he has released his debut album Tsholofelo in a major label deal. The album, which was pre-released for 67 hours over this past weekend in a (perhaps slightly distasteful) nod to Mandela Day, shot to number 1 on the South African iTunes charts in all genres, one-upping Twitter foe AKA and propelling Nyovest straight into the stratosphere of local hip hop stars.
Clocking in at 80 minutes over 19 tracks, Tsholofelo is a hefty listen. It could be argued that this is to its ultimate benefit – it is definitely a warts-and-all experience, and perhaps if the album had been slimmed then certain stand-out deep cuts like ‘Tsibip’ and ‘She Love Me’ might’ve not been kept. However, in an interview in September, Nyovest claimed that he had “like 300 songs” and was working out which ones to pursue for the completed album. Cutting down from that initial sum was obviously a problem here, and the sense remains that he could have gone further than he did; something that has been compounded by small problems with sequencing and ordering. Apart from the stunning opener ‘I Hope You Bought It’, the first six tracks of the album never manage to take off, and it takes until the appearance of most recent single ‘Phumakim’ before things really get going.
From there, the trajectory of things take a serious upward turn. The second two-thirds of the album are packed with brilliant tracks, propped up at regular intervals by the appearance of the mega-successful singles ‘Doc Shebeleza’ and the Okmalumkoolkat-featuring ‘Gusheshe’. Both of these tracks sound like they’ve been ever-so-slightly refigured for album release, compounding on their original explosive grit. Nyovest achieves the difficult feat of out-rapping Okmalumkoolkat on the latter (though there are no losers here), and ‘Doc Shebeleza’ remains one of the most distinctive hip hop singles to come out of the country in the last few years.
Tsholofelo is reference-heavy in its stylizations. He draws from all geographical points across North America’s hip hop landscape, but unlike some of his current contemporaries, he isn’t afraid to be influenced by South African house, mid-2000s kwaito and the Motswako of his mentor HHP. ‘Ghetto Olympics’ is the track where his broth of sounds comes together most seamlessly. The subtle minor-key piano that shows up across many of his songs is transcendent here, pervading the harsh motswako sounds that open it and providing an almost-eerie base on which he, Ifani and Uhuru can strut. Fourth-track ‘Cold Hearted’ offers the first hint that this album isn’t all bright and cheery, but where that song deals lyrically with Weeknd-esque musings on the dark spaces of the morning after, it is on some tracks in the album’s second half that the subject matter is matched by the sonic landscape in which it resides. It is subtly dark and entirely engrossing.
There are a few targets at which Nyovest takes aim more than once. Apart from the mainstream system, women who only want something to do with him now that he’s famous, and AKA, the subject most critically discussed is modern social media, and, more specifically, Twitter. If that sounds cringe-worthy, it’s probably because of the awkward way that social media is usually approached and discussed. But on Tsholofelo it forms a comfortable part of Nyovest’s lyrical lexicon: he treats it not as a novelty, but as what it really is for him and the majority of his listenership: a massive part of everyday life. So when he attacks its social effects, it's not with fogeyish anger at the lack of real, authentic connections, but at the acrimony that it breeds and the false sense of self it gives to its users: his ire is directed at ‘twelebs’, at attention-seekers, at those whose mouths are bigger than their talents. Still, inevitably, Twitter does manage to form the basis of possibly the album’s most eyeroll-worthy line: “It’s like hashtag that awkward moment when this n*gga did not give a fuck”.
There are a few obvious clunkers here and there, but for the most part, Nyovest is smart with his lyrical choices and the album has numerous gems scattered across it. Even Take Care had some hilariously bad lyrics (“Tuck my napkin in my shirt cause I’m just mobbin’ like that”, anyone?), and in an album with this much rapping that’s almost to be expected. The cringe-inducing lines are the exceptions to the rule here, and as such they become almost endearingly funny, lines to treasure, even if it's for different reasons than the album's other examples of shining, witty wordplay.
There is struggle in this album, but it’s the sound of struggle-overcome rather than -in-motion. And in that sense, it’s a celebration. Nyovest’s story is truly one of rags to riches but it’s by no means over. This is an artist in motion - one unafraid to exhibit his growth. Tsholofelo is certainly not a perfect album, but it is a very good one. And it hints strongly of someone who is only going to get better.