The Year in Music

Zia-ul-haq Haffejee gives us a wrap-up of everything rap and not-rap

Words: Zia-ul-haq Haffejee | Images: Supplied

Prince, Phife Dawg, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen: man, have we lost some one-of-a-kind gems over the past 12 months! Bowie and Cohen, whose acclaimed final albums came shortly before their deaths were equally steeped in an almost  eery pre-emptive sense of closure. If you’re over the age of 18, I’d bet at least one of these artists made an impact on your life. The same could be said about Mandoza. ‘Nkalakatha’, besides being one of the true bangers in our country’s history, is an artifact of the dwindling Rainbow Nation narrative. Rest in peace. This is my run-down of this year’s *vital* goings-on in the world of popular music and the fringes thereof. I’ve split this shtick into two categories: Rap and Not-Rap. The reason for this binary is not to undermine other styles of music but rather to celebrate the new vanguard and the genre’s total permeation of popular culture – it’s where all the dank memes are at. Rap isn’t just the new rock, it’s the new pop, Hedi Slimane.


Locally, the Sakawa Boys put their debut 2014 Anxiety on wax and delivered on the promise they’d made to a stagnant Cape Town scene. Bateleur’s self-titled offering was a highlight too – if just for the spectacle that surrounded its launch. Fans had to seek out a mysterious installation called ‘The Nest’, situated at a Table Mountain look-out point, and plug in their phones to download it. For mahala, nogal. Radiohead released A Moon Shaped Pool and we rejoiced. The regrettably less reclusive Bon Iver also dropped a typically hyped new body of work that I haven’t listened to, nor do I plan to, for the mere reason that he’s kak boring. If you’re looking for a nerdy white dude making confessional music, try Car Seat Headrest: this year’s anthemic Teens of Denial brought a revelation that the indie rock vehicle still has gas.

On the electronic front, Cheetah finds the legendary Aphex Twin experimenting with a notoriously obscure synthesiser, while The Avalanches made a notable return after 16 years and James Blake appealed to a broader fan base with The Colour in Anything. A bigger fan-pool will also be the inevitable result of Durban-based gqom trailblazer DJ Lag’s world tour. Angel-Ho played another Boiler Room set, and much like ANOHNI, persists in subverting the predominance of cis-het narratives in independent music.

Easily the biggest surprise of the year was Childish Gambino’s latest, which is not a rap album: Questlove fittingly compared it to There’s A Riot Goin’ On and woke up D’Angelo at 4am to listen to it. Freetown Sound was another unexpected treat, courtesy of Blood Orange, whose old pal Solange nabbed the number 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for the first time in her career with A Seat at the Table. A few months earlier, Beyoncé retained her crown with the similarly chart-topping Lemonade, basically an entire opus dedicated to castigating Jay Z for being a lecherous fool. So ja, the Knowles family took straight Ws this year.

Rihanna fans seemed to have mixed feelings about Anti but ensured we’ve all heard their ‘Higher’ renditions at 4am. Taylor Swift became synonymous with the snake emoji and The Weeknd, for House of Balloons fans, became that ex you’re happy to see flourish from afar. Britney made a comeback and recruited the likes of Tinashe and G-Eazy to give her some cred with kids. JoJo returned, but is it just too little too late? (Sorry). And at last, Frank Ocean made us wait very long and gave us two albums and a magazine. They were great, ‘nuff said – this story’s been hyped to death.


Rae Sremmurd sought more sophisticated ways of turning up on SremmLife 2 and nailed it, like on ‘Black Beatles’ with the slimmed-down Gucci Mane, who released a few projects since getting out of jail. These include collaborative efforts with Lil Uzi Vert (don’t sleep on him) and Future (whose solo hot streak cooled off in recent months). Lil Yachty continued to thrive in his sweet-spot of Instagram and rap to churn out numbers that old heads and youngsters just can’t seem to agree on. Lil Boat’s been prolific with his features, but the hottest guest-spots were taken by Andre 3000, who graced us with his presence on projects from Vince Staples, Frank Ocean and Travis Scott. Untitled/Unmastered notwithstanding, can we just reflect on Kendrick’s bit on ‘Goosebumps’? And then there’s the La Flame and Young Thug’s Tekken showdown.

We learnt that 21 Savage’s face tattoo isn’t a cross, Metro Boomin the new Dre, and that his trust is an integral part of not being shot by Future. We met Princess Nokia and Young M.A. two very refreshing presences on the contemporary landscape. And whether it’s rapping, singing, dancing or playing the drums at his gigs, Anderson .paak boldly announced himself in 2016, too, dropping two wickedly soulful LPs: one solo and the other a collaboration with Knxwledge.

Chance The Rapper was nominated for seven Grammys after the rules were changed to allow streaming-only albums for the first time ever and he still refuses to sign to a label. The man is redefining the parameters of success for independent artists. Drake released the polarising Views and neglected to realise the meme-worthiness of his sitting on that tower. Skepta dropped the long-awaited Konnichiwa and spurned on the infatuation with grime, while Kanye delivered a great album, had everyone wearing his merch and needed to take some time off after the stresses of being ‘Ye took their toll. But it was in the wake of Phife’s passing that A Tribe Called Quest dropped the best rap album of 2016 – their first in 18 years.

Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition is another legitimate contender for that title: he raps over beats that most wouldn’t dare traverse and named the album after a Joy Division song, goddamnit. ‘Rolling Stone’ features Petite Noir, and the song packs a baseline almost as deep as Kwesta’s voice on ‘N’gud’. Between the latter and Babes Wodumo’s ‘Wololo’ (featuring Mampintsha from Big Nuz whose most recent effort earned them Album of the Year at the SAMAs), SA was pretty much spoken for– except for the minor feat of Cassper Nyovest successfully filling up Orlando Stadium. And now Cassper and his nemesis have squashed the beef, we can revel in peace and everybody can start acting like adul- oh, nevermind, I forgot that Black Coffee slapped AKA’s road manager. 2017 couldn’t come sooner.