The great stream of Afrobeat music created by Fela Anikulapo Kuti split in two at his death. The original sound is maintained by Fela’s last band, Egypt 80, ably led by one of Fela’s sons, Seun Kuti. Fela’s eldest son Femi, however, has meandered from his father’s sound. This began before Fela’s death, but reached a crescendo with Femi’s first major U.S. release, Fight to Win (2003). This is a fast, complex, multi-style album which features cameos from MCA artists Mos Def, Jaguar Wright, Common and Money Mark. Peppered with political commentary (“Traitors of Africa”) and waves of Afrocentric lyrics (“Alkebu-Lan”) in the tradition of Fela himself, the disc was nominated for the 2003 Grammy (Best World Music Album, won by Rubén Blades for Mundo), and charted higher than 15 for 10 weeks.
Now, seven years later, he returns to the studio with a more relaxed, streamlined sound, Day by Day. Simply compare the version of “Tension Grip Africa” on this disc to the earlier version on Fight to Win (“Tension Grip Nigeria”) to recognize that something new has surfaced in Femi’s music. The old version is noisy, almost industrial, with heavily distorted guitars, bass and drums depicting the titular tension in a harsh, visceral way. The new version is cooler, featuring organ and horns, Femi positively crooning the few lyrics over a slowly throbbing backbeat.
Since 2001, Femi has added trumpet, piano, and organ to the tenor and baritone sax work of his previous albums, and the study shows. No hip hop or neo-soul here. Instead, “Do You Know,” the lyrics of which juxtapose Fela with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday, includes Count Basie-style minimalist organ, jazz trumpet and solos on guitar and trombone, all riding a loping Afrobeat bass line.
Yet the political fire is still there, aimed square at corrupt politicians, governments that don’t care about their people, and citizens who would rather wait for the Second Coming than act in their own interest. The lyrics can be clumsy, and clearly get in the way of Femi’s clear tenor voice at times (“You Better Ask Yourself”), and his attempt to evoke church hymns in the first third of the title track is also more disappointing than effective. Nevertheless, this disc is a worthy successor to Fight to Win, and showcases a thinking musician in the process of inventing himself.