Some musical artists are content releasing products and cashing checks. They may be good at what they do, even talented, but their work never rises above a certain level of engagement – for them or their audience. Other artists, however, aim for more. They aren’t looking to remake the musical wheel, per se, but they push themselves, stretch boundaries, and redefine what is possible. Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Matt B plants a proud flag in the latter camp.
His 2014 debut announced him as a formidable new talent in the modern R&B world. He’s worked at a prolific clip since then and elevated his profile with each new endeavor. Matt B has strived to pay back the blessings of his musical success with a plethora of charitable activities, as well, including performing for hospitalized children, toys and clothing donation drives, and appearing at holiday festivals. Follow-ups to his successful debut have enjoyed growing popularity as well. His latest album Alkebulan is a ten-song collection that qualifies as a major artistic statement by any measure.
The African influences pervading the album make their presence felt from the first. It opens with “Buya Ekhaya (Opening Interlude)”, a brief introductory piece. The wordless vocal and percussion driven track features the talents vocal ensemble The Unveiled and has deceptively evocative power despite running one minute and thirty-five seconds. “Gunjale” is another collaboration spotlighting the guest talents of Ugaboys. Matt B synthesizes the aforementioned African influences with a smattering of popular song structuring and echoes of R&B. It’s a potent mix.
“Freedom” finds Matt B working with Motswana mo Erongo and the surging, triumphant thrust of the song sweeps listeners away. It’s infused with flashes of genuine poetry, as well, without lapsing into any sort of pretentiousness. Matt B’s direct, uncomplicated imagery establishes an immediate connection with listeners. “Shining” pulls back the reins on the African influences in favor of pursuing an appealing up-tempo R&B sound. The wide rhythmic dimensions, however, continue to be heard and give the tune a distinct flavor different from customary efforts in this vein.
The album’s genre synthesizing arguably reaches its peak with the single “Gimme Love”. Pairing his talents with Ugandan vocalist Eddy Kenzo supplies a bright spark for this track that proves to be its crowning touch. There are subtle instrumental touches scattered throughout the cut that help distinguish it from Alkebulan’s other outstanding fare – the piano surfacing during the song’s midway point and later is an especially nice addition.
“Jolene” has stylish, pleading beauty and sparkling elegance that inspires a smile. The yearning in Matt B’s voice helps makes this one of the album’s finest vocals and graceful musical touches further elevate the performance. There’s a dollop of pleasing funk creeping its way into the finale “Ogala Traveler” returns us to Matt B’s African influences for a final time and he continues successfully mingling them with Western instrumentation and pop song structures. Alkebulan is a joyous and life-affirming recording that easily stands out as Matt B’s most fully realized release yet.