The Universal Music catalogue is garnering major attention locally and abroad. It boasts a few formidable artists and a decent range of sounds. One artist Phumlani S Langa has been patiently waiting to burst through those ranks is the first lady of Family Tree Records, Nadia Nakai.
It’s a misty morning and there’s quite a hustle and bustle in the reception and atrium area of Universal Music in Rosebank. Lady Zamar hosted her launch and birthday party the evening before and Nasty C and Tellaman are hanging around waiting for an interview to begin. They’re promoting their upcoming trip to the 25th Essence Music Festival in New Orleans in the US next month. I’m here to meet Nadia Nakai.
Her debut album, Nadia Naked, hits the shelves this week and she’s gearing up for its anticipated release. She is running a bit late as she had to get a “face beat” (perfectly done make-up). Of course, the title of her album has tongues wagging. The sister is mad fly, even in person, and so when her name is followed by that word ‘naked’, people assume she had pulled an Iggy Azalea – a leaked nudes situation.
This wasn’t the case and, although I wasn’t happy about the album announcement image bearing a striking resemblance to Jay Z’s 4:44 album, I was still intrigued, and so was black Twitter as she trended for most of the day. This, and the risqué outfit she wore at the Castle Lite Unlocks event, has had anticipation running high.
Her aesthetic and physique seem to overshadow her artistry, but when speaking to the woman, it is apparent that this is all secondary. As I sit in a small cubicle at Universal waiting for her to wrap up her face beat, I believe that she has what it takes to thrive in her craft.
For starters, her voice is not terrible. Lyrically, I have been waiting for her to really snap. The closest it came for me was on the smash hit Ragga, which featured Cassper Nyovest, Riky Rick and Gemini Major.
She has also come under fire in the media as her style bears a resemblance to the likes of Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj. A few months ago, she was even sweated publicly about the amount of make-up she wears and what she actually looks like. While all this went down, she dispensed hits such as Naaa Mean and Money Back.
A fiery diva
Nakai strolls in with a friend. Dressed in dark hues and wearing shades, she makes her apologies for being late. She has become a household name, but maintains a humble demeanour, which I appreciate.
We delve into her first moments with the mic in hand.
With a flick of her weave, Nakai reminisces: “Back in Kenya, my mom bought this Mac and I installed a garage band and started recording myself and playing around on that, and then taking those CDs to school and giving them out. I’d say it all definitely started in Kenya.”
Nadia Nakai Kandava is of Zimbabwean and South African heritage, and very vocal and proud of it. The husky-voiced rapper tells me that hip-hop in Kenya, where she went to school, was heavily influenced by dancehall and Afro beats, which is why her music sounded a bit like that when she started out.
Musically, she tells me some of her inspirations: “Lauryn Hill – her album was one of the most inspiring – along with Erykah Badu’s Baduizm and, of course, Jill Scott. I started from a very soulful background.”
UB40’s Guns in the Ghetto, she says, is an absolute stand-out for her. I found this and her mention of Seal surprising.
She explains: “Back then, I was often listening to a lot of the music my mom was listening to. Even though I wasn’t heavily influenced by dominant rap albums back then, I feel like the soul of the artists I was listening to helped me.”
Her current sound is almost juxtaposed to that. She gets to trapping in her music.
While at varsity, she started recording a lot with popular production group Ganja Beatz and, through them, she met Nyovest. But before her time with Nyovest’s label, she was signed to YoTV presenter-turned-rapper Psyfo.
The aura in the room almost darkens for a second as she recalls: “I signed with Psyfo, and Cass was doing his thing.”
She pauses, then says: “Then I ended things with Psyfo and linked up with Cass and the crew in Zimbabwe at the airport. My former manager, who was a part of his team, was there.”
She claims Nyovest is someone who she can speak to about everything. I feel that he’s someone she could probably out-rap, but that is neither here nor there.
She giggles when I ask her why this debut album took so long to produce.
“I don’t know. I mean, when should I have released it? The one thing I really felt was that I needed to grow into myself. I was releasing songs and EPs, but when I first started working on my album, it just sounded like an extended version of my EP.
“That isn’t what an album is about. Making an album is a serious mental process – the synergy and the topics of the album, the track list and whether or not there’s a golden thread.”
She feels Nyovest found this out when he released Thuto last year, and she feels her album has a similar thing about it. I found this worrying, but Nakai considers Nyovest’s third studio album to be a masterpiece.
So what of this golden thread on Naked?
“I’m ripping the barriers away. I’m not particularly vocal on social media. I’d normally just have someone else speak for me. People on those platforms don’t usually listen to understand, but just to respond.
“So that thread is about letting people know who I am. I’m talking about family, break-ups and how I feel as an African,” the raspy-voiced rapper says.
Nadia Naked features Kwetsa, Khuli Chana, Ycee, Nyovest, Thsego, Lady Zamar, Sio and Stefflon Don.
The British rapper London would be another rapper who perhaps fits the mould or follows the Kim/Nicki blueprint. I point out the obvious comparisons, to which Nakai retorts: “I performed at Castle Lite wearing an outfit that was a little skimpy. People felt that way. A friend of mine posted a picture of Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Beyoncé and Rihanna, and she said she found it hard to understand that, when an international [artist] does it, it’s okay, but not when it’s someone from home.
“I listen to Dream Doll, Cash Doll and Megan Thee Stallion, and I follow all of them. There are so many woman artists who adhere to the same blueprint. They have wavy hair and big booties, tight waists – you know what I mean. It’s how it is and, if you’re upset about it, be upset with everyone.”
She then lists all the UK artists doing the same thing and claims that they all get their hair from the same place – a guy called Edmund.
I didn’t find this to be a good enough explanation, and some of us do call out other artists for following the same mould.
“It’s just how it is, babe. It’s more than the aesthetic – it’s more about the music, what’s happening with the music. Like, relax, and I’ll still change my hair colour, get my nails done and have make-up on and dress with my bums out because I like it.
Nadia's truth revealed
Available on Apple Music
There has been a fair amount of theatrics around the release of rapper Nadia Nakai’s debut album, Nadia Naked, and so naturally the Intro begins in a similar fashion. It’s almost a cinematic feel as the instrumental rings out as if the track is emanating from a mountain top. Nadia states emphatically that she’s the baddest on the planet. I had asked her a question, somewhat of a test that I ask most rappers. It’s simple really, who is the best rapper in the country? The answer usually is ‘me’. But this time was different. Her answer was A-Reece… he owns the throne in her opinion. I was taken aback by the abundance of humility in her response even though I tend to agree with all those who answer that question in the expected manner.
Nadia aka Bragga has managed to release a surprising album. Her voice sounds less corny and Barbie-esque - a throaty delivery that adds to the fire in her voice. I like that she doesn’t sound like a well-established artist backed by a large machine. The rhymes are dispelled as though from the voice box of a starving artist, as is easily picked out on Imma Boss. She also makes clever use of a basketball analogy involving driving the ball to the rim.
The album is shrouded in strong messaging around the strength and talents of an African queen. She doesn’t shy away from airing out any issues she has encountered in the industry. A bar that sliced through the speaker for me was: “Tryna diss me on Twitter, bout that make-up shit. If they don’t a story, then they make up shit”. This was a cold reference to the backlash she’s received around her aesthetic. The hint of vulnerability in her voice or perhaps it’s sincerity, I found rather pleasing to the ear.
Yass Bitch adopts more of the sound we might come to expect from a rapper like Bragga. The beat follows a familiar formula which made this track a little forgettable. It does knock, if you played this as you pulled up somewhere, you would undoubtedly draw some attention. On The Block featuring the street legend that is Khuli Chana sees Bragga on a boom bap, dust beat. I’ve been waiting for this and again her voice, this deeper delivery, fits snugly over the beat but the raps I found were wanting. She goes in for three verses and I kept thinking the next would be better than the last, but things just grew exceedingly awkward. The scheme involving the Titanic used on the chorus, was misplaced. This kind of beat is no place for average concepts that are modelled on a line by a rapper who she claims she is nothing like, Nicki Minaj who was spat, “It’s going down, basement.”. The two bars a very similar as Nadia raps, “Like Titanic it’s going down”.
She has cleverly managed to allow the album breathing room by not saturating the playlist with features even though there are a fair amount of guest appearances. Darkness Defined sees her label mate Lady Zamar gently handle the chorus with her ethereal vocal set as Nadia unpacks the trauma of a bad break-up. I enjoyed the combination of the two artists. Nadia ventures into the candy coated world of a more poppy sounded, guided by Zamar who dominates this sonic plane. The two both wear their hearts on their sleeves on this emotive track.
In Nadia’s words, “I know Chunkura will bang” and social media would seem to agree. I’m not so certain. It will gain traction and should probably get a video. I acknowledge the track for what it is in the grand scheme of things, but the pair don’t do enough for me on it.
Rap Bitches is way more speed. She cleverly borrows the late American rapper, Nipsey Hussle’s flow on his banger, Rap Niggas. Hers comes across as an homage or even response as she uses the flow quite well over a tough sounding beat. She even managed to squeeze in a bar or so of Zulu which is always a nice touch. I was highly bothered by the U.K’s Stefflon Don and her feature or lack thereof on the Outro. Steff calls Bragga and gives her props for being a leading artist on the continent but then that’s it. No verse. I’ve seen this before, one example comes to mind when American rapper Dave East featured Nas on a song, to whom he is signed, and all the iconic veteran did was speak. I’m not so certain if that should be listed as a feature but of course there is the intense allure of having an international name on the track list but I don’t agree with it being done purely for the sake of a prominent name on the list.
Besides feeling robbed of the two going pound for pound and bar for bar I would think Bragga can hold her head up high with this project. There is room to improve but I was able to spot the common thread she had mentioned. The stripped down and raw, new voice she has used has me thinking she might be quite different to the likes of Nciki Minaj even though Nadia makes mention of being the mother to many sons on this record, in similar fashion to Minaj.
I’m excited to see the videos and I would say that this is worth a spin. Does it have the legs to stand the test of time, we’ll just have to wait and see. We are in an era of music with a short lifespan. Nadia did mention that she had to train her raps up, get them better than what they once were, and she has done that. You can’t really ask for too much beyond a rapper being better than they once were. I feel there will be a timeless classic crafted by Bragga, I’m just not sure that this is it but hey, it’s fairly hot for right now.