Admitting he’s someone who is usually “bouncing off the walls all of the time,” Citizen Kay’s (Kojo Ansah) instrumental opener to new album Belly Of The Beast may seem out of turn – but its rustling leaves and gently suspiring piano open out into a record filled with versatility, with gems of jazz, alt-pop, electronica, and the most artistic kinds of rap wound around a hip hop spinal cord with a conscience.
The verses in Who Are You lean back super slow, but with a relentless rhythm; sometimes Ansah completes the whole bar and keeps rapping half-way through the next, to the point where you think he might run out of breath. “Usually I write just how I hear it in my head, and then I have to learn how to maintain my breath, to breathe at the right time,” the Ghana-born, Canberra-grown, humble and goofy musician says of his process. “I definitely write it how I think it needs to come across, and then I teach myself how to actually perform it.” In this track as well as For Me and Company I Keep, we also get to hear the man’s sweet singing voice. “I like singing – but I’m definitely not a singer,” he smiles. “My mum has always been in a church choir, and I used to play in their band as a guitarist, in my yesterdays. Then my voice broke and I realised I couldn’t sing. But any opportunity I get to sing a little bit, especially in the context of this album – I can mask it around other people’s voices. That’s a little secret. I just put someone who can sing over the top of me, and bury myself in there somewhere.”
Company I Keep includes electric keys, a syncopated hi-hat beat with limber rimshots, and a plucked double bass – there’s an Andre 3000 air to it, especially in the Dracula’s Wedding sense of its lyrics questioning whether to run to or from a particular girl. “Jazz is f-cking dope – I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything, really, about jazz, but I’ve always got it playing,” Ansah laughs.
The fantastically spirited Barred – a stand-out from the tracklist – features a sampled monologue about Indigenous Australians delivered by a terribly shrewd and eloquent, but very cuss-happy, Aussie man. He’s clearly no politician. “He’s quite the dude,” Kojo laughs. “His name is Tony Mann – he’s a mastering engineer from Melbourne. He puts up these motivational videos, or him just ranting about stuff… this one just really resonated with me. But I made sure to open it with him saying ‘I’m not an expert on all of it.’”
The subject of Aboriginal relations is something which gets attention from a few different angles on the album; listening to Ansah’s impassioned thoughts on Barred, one wonders whether he has ever been questioned about why he feels such a strong alignment with the travails of an indigenous people who are not his ‘own’. Ansah actually answers that question, on the album’s closer Never Again. “Three years ago I went back to Ghana,” he elucidates. “I went back for the first time since I came here, since I was five or six. Twenty-odd years [and] I finally went back to the motherland. And that was a massive, eye-opening experience for me – hearing all of that history. Ghana was the hub of the slave trade; Cape Coast Castle was the holding ground, after they captured everyone and before they shipped them off to wherever. Then, when I toured with Ice Cube, [Australian rapper] Briggs was talking to [Cube’s] sons about a particular shooting that happened in the States. He was talking about how everyone here gets in an uproar about it, but that the thing is, that’s happening in the Indigenous community here. Just that statement in itself, I was like, damn. I know nothing about what’s happening with the Indigenous community here. So that, coupled with that trip, set up a whole lot of questions in my mind.”
Belly Of The Beast proves that taking the time to centre himself is just as critical as engaging with social issues to Ansah. Opener A Moment To Breathe is this release’s contemplative, lyric-less pause for the self. “In the two years since my last album I’ve been getting into meditation. Just breathing exercises, just to be able to keep myself still. That first song is meant to do exactly that. How often do we take a minute to just stop and breathe? The world we live in is just so hectic… it makes all the difference.”
Belly Of The Beast is out August 25 via ONETWO.