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“Grace” Review: Otile Brown’s Undertaking is Still to Delight the Romantics

“Grace” Review: Otile Brown’s Undertaking is Still to Delight the Romantics

Otile Brown - Grace - review - Afrocritik

Otile Brown’s music is still the de facto go-to for romantics and Grace reiterates this.

By Frank Njugi

With the release of Just In Love in 2020, Kenyan artiste, Jacob Obunga, widely known as Otile Brown, engraved his name in the Kenyan Pop music canon. The songs in the album became staples on East African radio and TV playlists for the majority of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just In Love accrued massive commercial success and established Otile Brown as a household one. Inundated in his music is a spontaneity and innovativeness that seems directed mainly towards making love songs that appeal to romantics, a fact that the album established.    

In the past decade, no other Kenyan artiste has gone toe to toe with Tanzanian Bongo Flava artistes in terms of producing Swahili songs that become hits. Otile has achieved this, earning a title as one of the most popular Kenyan musicians in the East African region in recent times. This year, he is back with Grace. Released on the 23rd of February, the fifteen-track album, much like the ten in Just In Love, consists majorly of odes to loved ones, narrating both the upsides and pitfalls of romance.

He kicks off Grace with “Asante”, featuring popular Tanzanian singer, songwriter and owner of the Next Level Music record label, Rayvanny.  Released on January 25th, 2024, as a forerunner for the album, the track sonically exhibits electroacoustic ambient sounds and Swahili lyrics that explore the bittersweet nature of romance — a prevalent theme throughout the project. The second track, “African Woman”, also contains a feature; this time with Eddy Kenzo — the first Ugandan artiste to win a BET Award (2015), and to receive a Grammy Awards nomination (2023). The song uses Eddy Kenzo’s blueprint, using simple lyrical delivery to explore relatable afflictions, affiliations and delights. The song’s hook, “Have you ever been in love with an African woman?”, is delivered over electronic percussions that dominate the whole song.

“Umenipendea nini”, the next song, features Tanzanian Bongo Flava artiste, Baraka The Prince. It has a deceptive sweetness to it, which is heavily complimented by the earworm vocals that accompany the gentle, sonically alluring beat employed on the track. Otile and Baraka The Prince ruminate on nascent affection, their lyrics questioning the reason to love or to be loved. “Na Enjoy” which follows, is reminiscent of Otile’s old songs — such as “Nabayet” and “Crush”— in terms of its use of synth stabs, and ear-melting melody that stays true to the Pwani music sound. Going solo for the first time in the album, “Na Enjoy” finds Brown singing on his current delight in being nonchalant – subsequently revealing an unwarranted belief of love being a vain thing, expressions which come from a past hurt endured.

Otile Brown - Grace - review - Afrocritik
Grace album cover

The fifth track, “Buss It”, features Kenyan-Shrap artiste Boutross. “Buss It” is a dancehall track, clearly conceptualised as a club staple. Its beat, like most Dancehall songs, is sped-up, full of influence from computer-generated rhythms. Boutross adds a component of eclecticism to the song, his verse is exciting, as his delivery draws a thin line between the playfulness of Gengetone and the rhythmic delivery of Sheng poetic speech that is characteristic of Shrap.

 “Tonight”, the follow-up to “Buss It”, is a seductive chant.  Its lyrics deviate from Otile’s usual style of disguising sexual discourse in metaphors and allegories. He is unhinged in his description of raunchy scenarios with a lady friend in this song.  “Tonight” also displays an acoustic improvisation which quivers with traces of transcendental creativity, making it among the best songs in the album. 

 “Loving You”, features one of East Africa’s leading female emcees, Femi One. The wonder of “Loving You” is  Otile’s vocals.  It elicits pleasure for the listener, with crisp romantic lyrics gorgeously delivered displaying an unmatched musicianship. Femi One has a penchant for always describing her romantic escapades as swashbuckling, and she doesn’t deviate from this in the song – which, oddly enough, compliments his singing.

“Balling” is intimate and nostalgic. With his lyrics, Otile reveals that his subsequent success after a break-up proves that he was being held back by a previous lover. He comes off as arrogant — constantly using the line “See I am balling, why are you calling my cellular?” — and justifies this by describing what forged the arrogance. The beat here sounds unsettled but still works for a song meant to soundtrack the nitty gritty of moving on after a breakup.  

“Dear Ex”, the ninth song, is similar in this regard,  as the main attraction comes from the story the lyrics tell rather than its sound. With emotional vulnerability, accompanied by an effortlessly glowing vocal tone, “Dear Ex”, narrates the love story with a woman he did not do right by and how he remembers and regrets his actions.  The lyrics are full of creatively employed Swahili proverbs and sayings which are sure to make the song one of the album’s more popular tracks.

Otile Brown Feature jpg
Otile Brown

“Wickedi” features veteran Kenyan pop artiste, David Mathenge, popularly known as Nameless. With a certain ease and freshness, Nameless and Otile make playful yet expository songs, with the verse by Nameless a pastiche of songs from his early 2000s heydays. The beat has an urgency to it which emboldens Otile as a new-age Kenyan artiste able to deliver efficiently alongside a Kenyan music legend. 

The song ushers in the eleventh track, “Some Fun”, which also features legendary and veteran music act, Morgan Heritage. “Some Fun” is a feel-good track, whose sound mirrors the wiry synth dancehall sound that East African artistes create whenever they collaborate with other artistes in the region. It reminds you of tracks such as “Guarantee” in which Kenyan artiste Wyre featured Morgan Heritage, and “Hallelujah” where Diamond Platinumz featured the Jamaican reggae band.

Interestingly, the follow-up track to “Some Fun” is also titled Hallelujah. “Hallelujah” is a gospel track, with a hymnody-like beat, in which Otile sings of his gratitude to God for his perpetual grace and love. The song has an aspect of multi-instrumentation to it which combines well with Brown’s vocals resulting in the gospel track having an immersive secular bliss to it. 

After “Hallelujah” comes “Like That” – a song with bright and cheeky lyrics that see Otile dive into the hedonistic, treading the boards as someone in a nightclub who has just spotted a girl he wants to approach. “Like That” flows with a slinking mid-tempo rhythm, with his background vocals having a whisper quality to them.

The penultimate track in the album, “Cake”, features Nigerian singer/songwriter Reekado Banks. The song has all the makings of a hit song. Reekado’s verse comes out as layered with a kind of blanketing echo, over a sped-up driving drum beat rhythm similar to that of Afrobeats.  “Cake” has the catchiest of hooks, “She says nobody make that cake that night….”,  and the synergistic characteristic that collaborations between Reekado Banks and Brown usually exhibit is evident throughout the song. 

“Grace” the titular song, which also doubles up as a bonus track, ends the album. “Grace” is introspective, Brown reflects and acknowledges how well he has grown. The song is slightly piano-synth propelled, with Brown’s constant rhetorical questions throughout the track providing a decent ending to the album.

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On the YouTube description of Grace, Brown says of it as a harmonious tribute that embraces the spiritual essence of ‘Grace’, both in its divine significance and as a heartfelt homage to his late mom, Grace. But while being so, the album also serves as his way of showing that he maintains the identity his previous works established. Otile Brown’s music is still the de facto go-to for romantics and Grace reiterates this.

Lyricism — 1. 6

Tracklisting — 1.5

Sound Engineering — 1.5

Vocalisation — 1.8

Listening Experience — 1.8

Rating — 8.2 / 10

Frank Njugi is a Kenyan Writer, Culture journalist and Critic who has written on the Kenyan and East African culture scene for platforms such as Debunk Media, Sinema Focus, Culture Africa, Wakilisha Africa, The Moveee, Africa in Dialogue, Afrocritik and many others. He tweets as @franknjugi.

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