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Solo's evocative dreams

2019-11-03 06:00

Sihle Mthembu muses on the soundscapes and subtext created by Solo for C.Plenty.Dreams, the third release in his dreams trilogy.

Artist: Solo

Album: C.Plenty.Dreams

4/5

CPlenty.Dreams is the final release in Solo’s trilogy that explores dreams, which started with his debut album, Dreams.A.Plenty in 2014. This latest release is a generous offering in the shape of 12 songs of varying lengths and levels of seriousness in which anxiety makes way for a spiritual release, accompanied by dense sonics from all over the musical map.

Through constant beat changes and instruments that sync in and then clock out in the middle of songs, Solo manages to keep rap exciting and weird. It’s unashamedly celestial and groove-forward. Hence hip-hop under his tutelage feels more like the sub-genre of the album rather than the primary catalyst.

C.Plenty.Dreams is akin to a gradual freefall into the subconscious. In this realm, distortion is not only not abnormal, but it is also welcome. There are echoes in the middle distance and the lead vocals can at times feel like a magician’s sleight of hand – a distraction from the main event that is often happening in the background.

This is the kind of album that manifests once an artist lets go of attempting to create “normal”.

“The concept of the album allowed me to grow. I needed to start living out my definition of success to make C.Plenty.Dreams,” says Solo.

For as long as I’ve been alive there has been a book in my grandmother’s house titled Ungqeqe Wokuchaza Amaphupho by STZ Kwela. It’s a small, flimsy paperback with a lime-and-green cover that translates dreams and relates them to African traditions and customs. When I first saw the album cover for C.Plenty.Dreams I thought of this book and how I really need to get my grandmother a new one.

I was reminded of one of my favourite films. In 1990 celebrated Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa made a series of eight vignettes based on recurring dreams he’d had over 70 years, which was released as Akira Kurasawa’s Dreams.

Solo’s dreams trilogy didn’t take quite so long to make but when I get hold of him on the other side of a less-than-clear line he tells me this series has been a long-term project of his own.

“I figured it out in 2008,” he says. “That’s when I first had the idea of doing a trilogy of albums even though Dreams.A.Plenty came out only in 2014. I’ve been living it for more than a decade. Wanting to follow through on a long-term plan was something I was fighting for the whole time.”

Dreams are often one of two things, memory or premonition. In C.Plenty.Dreams, Solo moves between both worlds, through his rhymes trying, often succeeding, to thread a tough line between what has happened and what is yet to come. Memory is the weapon, says poet Don Mattera. Solo’s superpower is recollection. Nowhere is this more evident than in Show the Bloopers, a tightly knit two minutes and 56 seconds of stop-start free-form recollection.

Close Encounters

I was supposed to meet Solo for the first time about a year ago when he and “his band”, the BETR Gang, were on the Durban leg of their Tour Dates showcase. We were connected by ByLwansta, a mutual friend and rapper. For one reason or another, Solo did not call me back and I was not offended. When I ask him what he thinks is the most significant difference between Tour Dates and this project, he meanders, making mention of the fact that Tour Dates was more collaborative before landing on the point that C.Plenty.Dreams is a critical full stop in a very autographical chapter. “Balance was a big concern in the album; balance in terms of career, family, marriage and spirituality,” he notes, “because, for me, it means a lot to be successful holistically.

“It wouldn’t mean anything to me if I was deemed Solo the lyrical genius, but at home things were horrible.”

Even though the projects do not share a thematic umbilical cord, the work that Solo did with the BETR Gang on Tour Dates bears fruit on C.Plenty.Dreams, primarily showcasing his ability to do double duty as both lead vocalist and bandleader. The music is warm and does not reek of the cold stasis of the studio.

In C.Plenty.Dreams Solo graduates to widescreen raps that range from lamenting an uncertain destiny in South Africa to detailing the process of overcoming his own disquiets about manhood. On this album, Solo shows the benefits of being an artist operating just down the road from the mainstream. Through his furious rhymes and stacked storytelling, he gives us a peek into the place where he lives, the subconscious of [President Cyril] Ramaphosa’s Mzansi.

Solo has an obsession with ambient sound. It was first made apparent in Kinda Sorted from the first dreams album and by far my favourite Solo record. On this latest project, the ambient sound is at the forefront. The snippets of conversation often submitted without context are a significant highlight and, through them, the world Solo inhabits not only makes its way into his lyrics but into the music itself. It’s the topsoil on which this entire thing is built. “The album is for my tribe. It’s for people who are like-minded and who are looking for this,” he tells me.

In an era of anthem chasers and microwave raps, it’s becoming harder in hip-hop to find albums to live with or ones that reward a repeated return. When I ask him what he thinks about the future of the hip-hop album, Solo is unable to stop himself from being an idealist. “I actually wouldn’t say that artists shy away from concept albums,” he says. “I think it just depends on who you listen to. I don’t like that idea [of artists being shy to do albums]. It’s very artist-specific.”

Redemption is also a running theme in C.Plenty.Dreams and I’m talking about the personal kind. It announces itself as early as the second song, Highlight Reel, when just after his first verse Solo doesn’t come back. Instead, the song is overtaken by a woman who meanders around notions of spirituality and how she became a social worker after she realised she came from a place of privilege.

I do wish Solo would play more with his cadence. He has an unusually soothing voice and unless you are listening carefully for the content, it’s possible to drift off now and again. When he does use those inflexions of tone, they are often as a result of him chasing a pocket in the song as opposed to an emphasis of emotion.

That aside, C.Plenty.Dreams was a good way to wake up from the numb state of Fiona Apple’s When the Pawn, which left me in at the tail end of winter while I had it on repeat running errands, trying to meet deadlines, in between paying bills, arguing with my partner, uploading photos and attending meetings that could have been emails.

If nothing else, C.Plenty.Dreams made me feel alert again because Solo’s message is not one that insists on simplicity. He knows things will get ugly, but if you’re going to talk about anguish, you might as well take the scenic route. Ultimately, at its height, the music is a slideshow of uncertainties, and as a body of work, it is anti-neutrality. Solo in his hunt for empathy tries to see the other side of every personal conflict, and you know what that is? Growth.

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November 17 2019