REVIEW: Chicago Afrobeat Project - What Goes Up

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Laura Kerry

For the last 15 years, a varying group of musicians has met in Chicago lofts and studios to create around their shared love of Afrobeat music. Since 2012, Chicago Afrobeat Project (CAbP) has released four albums and developed a unique sound that combines West African beats, jazz instrumentation and melodies, and a range of elements from other genres, from funk to indie.

Inviting different members and artists to contribute and leave their mark as they please, CAbP runs as more of a collective than a rigid band, and their new release, What Goes Up, reflects this structure (or lack thereof). In ten songs, the album cycles through different voices, moods, and instrumentation, crediting almost 20 different artists—about half of whom are vocalists. As a result, though the bass, guitar, synth, and horn sections remain throughout, each song carries a different tone.

Unifying What Goes Up as much as the core members of the group is featured guest Tony Allen, who plays drums on every song. Allen is a legend, landing in the top third of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” list and earning a number one spot in Brian Eno’s estimation. He helped create the fundamental beat in Afrobeat, playing with Fela Kuti for a decade in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s a big deal for one of the genre’s forefathers to join forces with one of its most interesting disciples. Both parties seem to revel in that, producing an exuberant album.

Staying true to Afrobeat, What Goes Up is founded on complex rhythms. Led by Allen, the album shifts around West African polyrhythms—multiple patterns of beats that work with and against each other. In “Cut the Infection,” a video game synth dances with the drum kit in one of the more traditional feeling songs; in “Must Come Down,” the vocals find their own space among a dark pulse of screeching electric guitar, animated horns, and jazzy percussion; and in “White Rhino,” the fluid swirl of brighter instruments contrasts with the rigid beat. Each track is wildly complex, but not so much so that the listener can’t automatically internalize their feeling and dynamic motion. Even when songs meander, leaning closer to jazz than the comforting structures of pop, they maintain their pulsating, lively grip.

Though the rhythms dominate, they do not detract from the album’s content. True to their legacy, CAbP often tackle political themes. Over an urgent rhythm and lofty horn accents, “Race Hustle” confronts the manifestations of racism. “I won’t apologize for the fear my skin puts in your eyes,” J.C. Brooks sings, his voice rising to a near breaking point as he cries, “No I won't just look the other way / While you murder me again today.” In “White Rhino,” Ugochi sings about the overwhelming presence of bad in the world, repeating the words “too much” before a series of ills—starvation, aggression, oppression. These are powerful messages, but CAbP is at their most powerful when they deliver their politics with specificity or a touch of whimsy. In “Marker 48,” for example, humanity’s destructive relationship with earth is staged as a breakup between a normal man and woman. The metaphor draws the listener in, provoking a little bit of a chuckle and even more thought.

What Goes Up delivers as a message, a work of music, and an ode to a genre. With Allen’s accompaniment, CAbP has created exactly what a tribute to Afrobeat or anything should be: It executes on the original but also evolves it, pushing it to new and intriguing places.