Space Afrika, “Honest Labour”

Space Afrika
Honest Labour
DAIS
8/10

True to its original presentation as an NTS radio set, Space Afrika’s breakthrough mixtape hybtwibt? emerged with all of its rough edges and happy accidents delicately preserved. Assembled during the withering emotional turmoil of last year’s uprisings against police brutality, its rabid sampling and sketchy drones were a garbled pirate signal, a dispatch from within a battered world struggling to process centuries of trauma essentially overnight. Distorted images flashed by, shattering and reassembling in a fog of tape hiss and flickering nocturnal loops. Haunting even on repeated listens, hybtwibt? was a desperate sign of the times, mirroring the summer’s daily shuffle between crowded rage and uneasy solitude.

With the arrival of their newest album, Space Afrika wake up from the fever dream into an eerie calm. Where their previous work cut between ideas at a clip, pummeling the listener into transcendence, the Manchester collagists strive for and achieve a deeper lucidity through a steadier approach on Honest Labour. Production stretched far beyond the single month it took to write, record, and broadcast hybtwibt?—to say that it shows would be an understatement. From the first track, you can hear that once-roaring stream of consciousness slow to a trickle and freeze over. Rhythms unfold gently like a scroll. Melodies glide by, carefully panning over a detailed landscape with a wide-angle lens. Snowed in and pondering the frightening vastness of time, distance, and human emotion with a patient ear for frigid textures, Space Afrika turn in the winter record of the year four months early. 

None of this is to say that Honest Labour is entirely cool to the touch. There are more than a handful of jaw-dropping noise labyrinths to get lost in: see the OPN-style sci-fi synths of “Noise Sweet” and the fluttering drum machine punch of “NY Interlude” to get your fix in under a minute. And desolate meditative drones abound after opener “yyyyyy2222” spends its nearly six-minute build crushing your ego under the weight of heavenly sub-bass. But the album’s core—and most welcome surprise—is the warmth brought in by its guest vocalists.

hybtwibt? rarely allowed its densely chopped haze to clear up enough for any one human voice to pierce through; part of its magic was in allowing beauty and heartache to emerge from thin recordings that barely bled through the carefully manicured chaos around them. Honest Labour dispenses with opaque lo-fi-isms in favor of high-definition clarity.

Like lighthouses cutting through the mist, the vocal features on the album are heartening signs of humanity, banishing the at-times oppressive isolation that Space Afrika conjures up so well. Some, like bianca scout’s gauzy whispers on “Girl Scout Cookies,” or guest’s ethereal R&B croon on both of her features, are content to merely light the way with dreamy intonations. Others favor a bolder approach: Emcee Blackhaine’s appearance on mid-album stunner “B£E” works shockingly well. Weaving his way through mournful strings, a clattering breakbeat, and samples of angry dogs barking, his rhymes about “trying to get rich at the top of the map” ring out with a spirited defiance, lighting a fire in your belly just as the album nosedives back into the jaws of deep introspection. Far from sacrificing Space Afrika’s heady, soul-searching experimentation, Honest Labour instead offers a bleaker, more rigorous journey through the self. But if the duo have learned anything new this time around, it’s how to give listeners the strength to carry on, with the reassurance that they won’t have to travel alone.

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