Since Wangechi stepped into the Kenyan rap scene with her unique flow and energy, and lyrics containing a confessional frankness, she has on occasion been tipped as the artist to challenge the hegemony of male rappers in the industry. Her first two projects, the mixtape Consume: Chakula Ya Soul, and EP Don’t Consume if Seal is Broken, do not shy away from revealing her remarkable artistry. However, lacking the distinction of a project from an artist expected to take over the industry, Wangechi’s earlier work presents itself as a preamble to something more, something bigger, something that perhaps comes in the form of her latest album Emotional Gangster.
Released in September 2023, the 10-track album is indicative of Wangechi’s artistic growth over the years, and contains features from famed MCs Domani Munga, Buruklyn Boyz, and Kaa la Moto. Here, Wangechi has aligned herself with new-age Drill rappers, developing a unique sound that mirrors the type of music that is currently in vogue, while still retaining a style fans will find familiar. Emotional Gangster as a whole embodies a new and fresh sound.
Following up to her 2022 release Kiki Session 1, the first track, Kiki 2, serves as a subtle introduction to the forthcoming journey which Wangechi describes as an exploration of her duality. What stands out the most in Kiki 2 are the lyrics proclaiming a prescience she always had for her success. The track is lively with a feel good vibe that works well as an introduction, and sets the mood for the rest of the album.
The pizzazz in Wangechi’s flow in the second track titled Chachisha is only perhaps dwarfed by the levity in Domani Munga’s delivery, and the frenzied off-kilter 808 beat common in Drill music. The lyrics which are sardonic, (“Singedai kuchachisha / decidedly hapo ulikua chini”), contain the spontaneity of freestyle rap and an uninhibitedness also present in Mzigo, the fifth track in the album. The second of the only three features in the album, Mzigo has all the makings of a classic. Rocking an unshakeable melody and a beat you can’t help but dance to, the song serves as a metaphor for the constant struggle for survival in Nairobi.
In Mzigo Wangechi’s allegorical and descriptive lyrics are heavily complimented by the raw energy of the Buruklyn Boyz duo, Mr Right and Ajay, who are known for their exploration of Nairobi’s social landscape and zeitgeist. This is something Wangechi aims to explore with the song as well. Chachisha and Mzigo indicate the transformation of Wangechi from that artist who strives for introspection to one who also seeks to have fun with her music.
With the energy and depth of the first two songs, Wangechi dives into how her looks, traits, and behaviour result in the unwarranted perceptions people have of her in Msichana Mrembo. Her delivery in the song is tongue-in-cheek using wit to deliver an important message. While the beat on Msichana Mrembo is not as hard hitting as on the other songs, what sounds like the fusion of percussion instruments with a downtempo rhythm gives the song a rather groovy feeling with a tempo that is carried on to the next song , Zile Zile, which when compared to the other tracks is rather disappointing. While Msichana Mrembo ends on a light-hearted note with a recorded conversation of a lady expounding on the meaning of a song, Zile Zile kind of kills the established mood as its lyrics somehow come out full of punchlines that unsuccessfully venture into the theme of hedonism which has taken over Kenyan mainstream music in recent times.
The album’s only interlude, Edible, describes this project as an offering for her fans to feed and delight in. While she employs the same tone as the one in Zile Zile, it works really well for Edible as a forerunner to the seventh track, Wanitaka, which features Kaa La Moto. The keen listener will identify the vulnerability in Wanitaka as Wangechi attempts self-authentication. Through the song she questions, nudges, and invokes a reaction from an unspecified lover, and her desired outcome is reiterated by Kaa La Moto who delivers his verse with the precision of a rapper in a posse-cut song. The pop-influenced beat, in a unique way, suits the topic of romance that the song explores.
The eighth song in the album, Kidogo, is at first disguised as a party song but by the end is revealed to be one of two things: A warning against overindulgence, or Wangechi’s reflection into a personal tragedy that happened years ago. If the latter is true, then the lightened flow of the song might be intentional juxtaposition, approaching a deeply personal issue in a subtle manner that allows for reflection while maintaining a certain level of privacy. The same flow is maintained in Distance in Between, which has an infectious melody which is made memorable by its RnB vibe. The lyrics in Distance in Between affirm the theory I make about Kidogo, offering a clearer contemplation of the aforementioned tragedy, and the trajectory of her life in its aftermath. The thing that makes Wangechi a distinct rapper is her vocal ability and how well she achieves a shift in tone in her songs. Distance In Between showcases this ability.
The album ends as it begins, with Sema Nami, a feel good song similar to Kiki 2. Its positioning as the last track is intentional. Wangechi wants to end the album as she started it, the journey coming full circle. The album begins and ends with a similar tempo and mood, but it is clear that Wangechi has range, the ability to move from Drill to RnB to Boombap effortlessly. Still, this approach might be inimical to the energy of the album as a whole.
In Emotional Gangster, Wangechi seems to have embraced producers that push her out of her comfort zone. From the drill sound in Chachisha to the soft pop sound of Wanitaka, there is indication of an artist who has grown in confidence and believes in her ability to work over multiple sounds and still retain that aesthetic she is known for. And although this album has not propelled her to the pinnacle that she was expected to reach, maybe it is still safe to take this as another indication of what is to come. Besides, in a year that the Kenyan music industry has seen plenty of albums released, she has done way better than most.
Rating – 7 / 10