Album Review: Alkaline - Top Prize
by Steve Topple
It’s been a fairly long five years since Alkaline’s last full album, New Level Unlocked. But he’s returned with a record that’s paradoxically concise and expansive. No mean feat to make a project musically sweeping in under an hour of play time. But Alkaline has pulled it off magically.
Top Prize, released via Autobamb Records, sees Alkaline catapult himself across 14 tracks, aided by a host of producers. There’s some very solid mixing and mastering from Frederick ‘Blackspyda’ Wright and Jahvon ‘Sarge’ Lothian, which has avoided the trap of working the project as a whole – instead being sympathetic to each track. Sam Conturo/ Adiambo Riley’s engineering is pitch-perfect – and the whole project reeks of quality. But it’s the variety of styles and subtle differences between them which make Top Prize ‘top class’.
The title track, with production from Autobamb, delivers some smoothed-out AfroDancehall vibes that occasionally get edgy with pointed Trap buzz rolls; the use of a haunting electric guitar line is particularly compelling as is a fluttering, delicate synth flute. Nuh Trust Mankind follows suit. SartOut Productions have heavily emphasised the higher pitched percussion like hi-hats and a snare across complex rhythmic arrangements. A bell bottle synth brings some ethereal vibes into the mix; strings soar and Alkaline delivers some deftly complex singjay, using intricate rhythms and barely stopping for breath. The Ajus Di Vybz-produced Ah takes the sound further still, making the overall feel more ambient and synth-led but shifting the rhythmic focus further towards Dancehall. The track takes that old skool rhythmic clave beat (‘oneeeeee-twooo-and’ x2) and splits and mashes it across the bass/kick and snare/claps; at points doing a full clave and at others breaking it. Some rasping synth horns add to the almost Synthwave undertones and Alkaline is vocally impressive, bringing full light and shade to both his use of intonation and dynamics.
Harder AfroDancehall is repped across Deh Suh, with Gego Don Records. The BPM picks up; strings help drive the kick’s ‘oneeeeee-twooo-and-[three]-and-four’ rhythm; the snare is heavily syncopated and some reverbed synth leads run countermelodies. Alkaline is impressively frantic, hitting 10 syllables a second at one point. Then, Studio Vibes are back and they soften the AfroDancehall sound to make it verge on the AfroPop across More Life: strings pick up the broken clave beat with the bass but then also perform an intricate countermelody; the backing vocals are heavily harmonised and some dampened horns provide regal accompaniment.
One of the hottest producers of the moment, Week.Day, brings his instantly recognisable Tru Ambassador Music Afrobeats-RnB style to Ocean Wave: mixing his signature compressed strings with glistening chimes, hi-hat buzz rolls, that stuttering, Afrobeats percussive arrangement and a love of a good melodic hook. Week.Day continues in a similar vein on Hostage. But here, he’s made the strings lower-pitched, shorter in length at points but also with some impressive, intricate arrangement. Alkaline shows off his falsetto voice and also the good clarity of his upper vocal register on both tracks.
Heat A Di Moment brings some straighter Afrobeats to Top Prize from producers Studio Vibes Entertainment, with its winding bass and stop-start percussion. But here, Alkaline unleashes his singing prowess to create an RnB vocal line – doing some brilliant mixing-up of his vowel sounds and embouchure (vertical or horizontal mouth shape); working up and down his vocal register fully and avoiding a singjay entirely. Medicine also feels more Afrobeats, but with Autobamb focusing on smooth, ambient production and arrangement – including a delicate, gliding harp line which works well against the meandering percussion which uses a Dancehall clave on the first bar of each four-bar phrase. Again, Alkaline impresses – here doing some skilled vocal jumps across his register.
Top Prize delves into straighter Dancehall too. Magic sees SartOut taking that rhythmic clave beat but removing the edge from it with a softened bass timbre, a dB reduction on the drums and the inclusion of reverbed strings and some well-placed samples. Alkaline is laid-back but equally rapid-fire, here showing some real skill with his use of dynamics – flipping from loud and abrasive to soft and sensual in seconds. But then the album’s closer, Payroll, goes full-on modern Dancehall. SartOut Productions have created a complex, unnerving and bold composition: edgy, syncopation-heavy with a brooding, abrasive string line that constantly flows, a distorted kick and some synth leads which almost sound like alarms. Alkaline maintains nine syllables a second for much of the track – and its unsettling feel stays with you after it ends.
But Top Prize also delves into genres away from Afrobeats and Dancehall and their derivatives.
HipHop-come-Trap gets a look in on Maniac. Producers Armz House Records mash the two styles up expertly: taking those Trap buzz rolls as a centre piece and a dirty, distorted bass – but then winding things back with some HipHop sensibilities: the bass’s melodic and rhythmic arrangement, gently tinkering keys and horn-like synth leads running their own melody. Cree then expands on this musical thought-process. But producer Countree Hype takes it one step further, as frantic Trap hi-hats are juxtaposed with the snare doing a stuttering Afrobeats rhythm while the bass follows a HipHop riff as plucked, reverbed strings tinker in and out. Alkaline shows his versatility on both these tracks, expanding his singjay to incorporate rap-like use of rhythmic patterns and stanzas which he then embellishes.
Twerc, with its mashed-up spelling, is a curious creation. True Life Records have produced a track that wants to be Afrobeats, especially with some very traditional percussion like a balafon included across equally traditional rhythmic arrangements. But there’s some Middle Eastern/North African influences, too – what sounds like a striking but compressed duduk (or is it a rhaita?) is a nice addition. And then, the keys run an almost Funky Soul riff with plenty of blue notes – and the bass feels like it’s straight from a HipHop cut.
Overall, Top Prize’s variety of styles and genres is truly impressive; as are, of course, Alkaline’s performances. He’s certainly one of the more versatile artists to emerge in recent years – as this album shows, turning his hand to a multitude of vocal approaches. But he’s also created something that’s lyrically compelling to: striking that fine line between the conscious and the bruk out. There are gyal tracks a plenty: the overly sexual Twerc and Magic, along with the Afrobeats-RnB love song Hostage.
But Alkaline is also very introspective on Top Prize. The reflective title track sees him ponder his rise to the position he has today and the struggle that “tainted” this, that “started from the ghetto” and that now has “haters looking so pathetic”. Ocean Wave broadens out this thought process, as Alkaline discusses his journey from “that likkle kid; [to] now I am the grown” – and how it is important in life to personally and spiritually create “waves like the ocean”. He ponders his success across Deh Suh and the conflicts around Babylon’s ideas of material achievement versus making a better life for your “sons and daughters”. More Life gives a glimpse of Alkaline’s personal faith, as he praises Jah for guiding him through Babylon’s trials and tribulations. And Payroll espouses the humbled self-confidence he needed to rise to his position in life.
Overall, Top Prize is a powerful return from Alkaline. Every track is extremely well-executed and pleasing on the ear and mind. The attention to detail the producers have given means that the album feels full of variety; Alkaline himself shows his vocal and lyrical growth, and the whole thing is one of the strongest releases of the year so far.
Alkaline - Top Prize
DIGITAL RELEASE [Autobamb Records]
Release date: 05/14/2021
01. Top Prize
02. Ocean Wave
03. Deh Suh
08. More Life
09. Nuh Trust Manking
11. Heat A Di Moment