Arriving a mere seven months after its release in pretty much every other European country, Mattafix’s sophomore album furthers the template laid down by its predecessor, only now with added Matt Damon (well, kind of…).
Opening with a commanding hip-hop beat, the London-based duo quickly seek to make good on their MySpace statement of intent, making positive music for the 21st century. ‘Shake your limbs to these rhythms, hymns and poems,’ implores the opening refrain, aptly expressing the album’s raison d’être. And most will find it difficult not to: as Marlon Roudette’s issue-laden (and somewhat androgynously-pitched) vocals swirl around a heady meld of beats, guitars and synths, it’s like a siren call enticing us onto the murky rocks of political engagement.
Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur, Soweto: thematically the album is a tour through 21st century ruination. Yet the lyrics never become preachy, the anger at the International Community’s collective failure to address the world’s most crucial issues (as opposed to, you know, directly and willfully exacerbating them…) channelled through catchy melodies and upbeat rhythms, a high-ground of positivity that lends an optimism and hope to messages that could otherwise become mired in despondency.
Like much hip-hop Mattafix take the side of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, but, refreshingly, their answers lie neither in casual violence nor the ceaseless accumulation of material wealth, but in the enduring nature of humanity. ‘Sooner or later we must try living’ sings Roudette in Living Darfur, which you may remember from its Matt Damon-fronted video (unless, of course, you’ve blocked him out), the sentiment a refreshing one in a genre saturated with a world-view that struggles to see beyond its own reality.
But to focus so exclusively upon the lyrics is to neglect the music itself, which is never anything less than utterly engaging. Taking in a wide array of influences and instruments, from Spanish guitar to African harmonies, through string sections and mere sampled noises, there’s a lot going on although the sound never gets cluttered. It’s a fitting multiculturalism given the band members’ backgrounds, and an effective twist on the usual pop formulas: these are songs ideal for radio, catchy enough for mass appeal yet imbued with enough depth to reward the more discerning. One advantage of the delayed release is that Rhythm and Hymns now gets to soundtrack the summer, a role for which it is more than generously endowed. Tracks like In The Background should come free with every sandy beach or sunset field, and the chorus melodies of Living Darfur demand car windows to drift out of.
It’s not an album that will change your life, although it might go some way towards modifying your views on hip-hop and r&b. Certainly though Mattafix have met their own remit with this release: they somehow make the 21st century seem pretty positive, and that’s possibly the most startling achievement of all.