Tony Allen, “There Is No End”
There Is No End
Though I’d witnessed the hypnotic magic of Tony Allen while he was drumming for his Afrobeat contemporary Fela Kuti, and had long been a fan of the rhythmatist’s work with King Sunny Ade and Ginger Baker, it wasn’t until the drummer played with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, then his The Good, the Bad & the Queen project, where I could speak to Allen. A casually cool drum god stuffed into a regal kingseat, Allen treated Albarn’s compositions and the rhythm section he had formed with Paul Simonon (of The Clash fame) in 2006 as but one more piece of his puzzle, a West African–styled Lego set layered with the ragged, angled tiles of R&B, funk, and jazz. He talked of taking the eccentric English music touched by dub and Afrobeat in stride, and made all that he laid his hands on a simple life pleasure—like sipping fine wine. Combine that cool complexity with an innate in-the-pocket oomph more finely regulated and metronomic than Clyde Stubblefield’s steady, burrowing groove, and Allen was magnificent—the rhythm divine personified.
Allen passed in April 2020 with a handful of compositions and demos in the planning stages for a new solo album—a soulful, personal catalog which merits greater examination—and to commemorate that passing, Blue Note drops There Is No End. Completed by its co-producers Vincent Taeger and Vincent Taurelle, with vocalists and rappers such as Sampa the Great and Danny Brown, the End’s game isn’t some grand finale or explanatory note summing up a career. Like everything else Allen was about, it’s but another piece of a greater puzzle.
That metronome’s meter, with a dub-house break and a hi-hat’s ride, turns “Stumbling Down” into something eerily atmospheric, yet sharply angled, a woozy track made whole by Sampa’s giddy rap. The same floppy dub break with tuneful jazzy brass applied doesn’t so much punctuate “Deer in Headlights” as it does stir up a smoldering psychedelic stew made weirder by Allen’s phase-shifting snare sounds and Brown’s leering voice. The Afro-pop of “Cosmosis” has the feel of being everywhere and nowhere at once, and aggressively yet.
Such aggression can easily be connected to years of warring strife, racism, insurgency, and pleas for justice in Allen’s homeland of Nigeria, and throughout a cut such as “Hurt Your Soul,” you can sense the pains of Allen’s drums, even when he’s rat-tat-tatting a snare to emulate the ring of gunshots. For every dramatic snare sound of Allen’s, there’s another tom-tom romp waiting to be beheld, even quietly and rumbling during “Très Magnifique” and its warm-winded rap courtesy Tsunami.
Though hardly or specifically hip-hop, it’s fascinating that Allen’s last full album is dedicated to the drummer’s relationship with rap, sweet or sour, and young collaborators. But, as its title signals, Tony Allen was a restless soul to go with his position as the rhythm divine personified. Savor this.