***1/2 (out of four)
The Very Best, a London-based collaboration between Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and Swedish producer Johan Hugo, has a history of globalizing U.S. and European musical influences. Yet by including familiar reference points, the group also has tried tried to make global pop music, especially African pop music, more accessible to those same U.S. and European audiences. Its first mixtape featured interpolations of songs by artists as disparate as Michael Jackson, M.I.A. and Architecture in Helsinki; the video for the Very Best’s latest single, “Yoshua Alikuti,” pointedly references Lil' Wayne's “A Milli” video.
The group's sophomore full-length “MTMTMK” mostly does away with the cheeky, occasionally cheesy appropriation that helped the band rise to prominence, opting instead for broad-strokes pop that seems designed to hit as many pleasure centers at once for people of as many different cultures as possible. The album is simultaneously a retrenchment of the group's African bona fides and a nod to the contemporary currents of electronic music. Unlike Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig guesting on TVB’s “Warm Heart of Africa,” there is no effort this time to bring American indie rock to Senegalese fans (Dutch electro house, maybe), but rather a guest list that seems aimed to expose artists like Senegalese rapper Xuman or Malian singers Amadou and Miriam to American listeners.
A song like “Mghetto” connects the dots between Jamaican dub music and wobbly American dubstep, while standout track “Kondaine” draws together West African highlife and the sort of jammy synth-pop native to the recent Brooklyn indie scene. The cross-cultural formula doesn't always work, as on the clubby rumba homage “Rumbae,” but, in places like the guitar solos on “Bantu,” it can be transcendent. On “We OK,” Somali-American rapper K'Naan shouts out a long list of African capitals where the song could very conceivably become a pop hit. Here's hoping the same is true of a few places in America, too.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic