Album Review: Koffee - Gifted
by Steve Topple
Koffee’s sophomore release, and debut album, has just been ‘gifted’ to the world. And while it is expectedly high-quality, oozing class and substance, the album is much more than that – as it’s a sum of the parts of Koffee’s life and cultural experiences so far.
Gifted, released via Promised Land Recordings/Sony/RCA, has clearly been extremely thought about before release. It’s slick, with the production (by talents such as Iotosh, JAE5 and Frank Dukes) and engineering delicately balanced across each track while maintaining an overall vibe that splits between being bass-heavy but also finely tuned on the detail of the higher Hz instruments.
There’s been some criticism from the corporate media about Gifted’s expansive musical dimensions; saying that covering so many styles and genres causes the album to “stumble” at times. But this is very subjective. Perhaps a better analysis would be that Koffee is part of a wave of Gen-Z Jamaican artists who’ve grown up with eclecticism in Reggae culture surrounding them.
Artists like Koffee draw inspiration from Protoje and Chronixx’s Revival movement; 80s and 90s Reggae; Old Skool Dancehall; more traditional Afrobeats coupled with fresher sounds like Afroswing and West African AfroPop; the US Trap and Alt RnB scenes, and even flashes of Neo Soul. So, Gifted is a sum of the parts of Koffee’s cultural inheritance – not, as some reviewers might have, an attempt to cover as much musical ground as possible.
A good example is the opener, x10. It makes no apology for sampling Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, not only physically with a small cut of the track elongated across the whole two minutes, but also relying on the main chord progressions as its basis. But Roots Reggae is not really anywhere in sight, as Koffee blends traditional Afrobeats drum arrangements (note the pattering djembe and shaker) across the chorus with something more RnB across the verses, with their fluid piano chords. A lilting acoustic guitar sits between the two genres throughout – and the whole thing is affecting and moving.
Defend, which is more of an interlude at 57 seconds, is a stop-off at something at first seeming Nyabinghi-influenced, seeing brushed snare drums and djembe along with a tinkering balafon and glistening chimes set a gentle ebb across the music. But there’s elements of Soul in the slowly whining guitar, funky electric piano line and distant Doo-Wop backing vocals. Koffee preaches on top of all this – and overall, it feels like a brief flash of her channelling Neo Soul Lauryn Hill, circa The Miseducation Of…
Shine takes Reggae sounds into 2022 Revival territory – merging traditional elements of the genre with musical devices from Trap. It takes a basic Reggae guitar skank as its central theme. But the drum arrangement draws inspiration from not only Reggae (with the snare hitting the two and four) but also Trap, with its rapid-fire buzz rolls on the hi-hats and kick on the one then offbeats. The bass is similarly Trap-led, slightly distorted and heavily resonant with a sparser arrangement than would normally be seen in Reggae. Shine effectively is Koffee’s homage to the 2010’s Revival sound, and she pulls it off really well.
The title track hones in on smooth Afrobeats-RnB. The harder, stuttering beat across the kick, with hi-hats and tin drums tinkering in between, is offset by a heavily dampened, lilting guitar line and pattering djembe. Also, the overall arrangement peaks and troughs in terms of instrumental intensity creating a fluid ebb and flow. The children’s vocals, engineered at times into Chipmunk sounds, work well – and the track is highly pleasing on the ear.
Lonely is purer yet modern Lovers Rock, with basic musical devices from the traditional end of the genre in play; the gorgeous combination of a piano, electric organ and its Hammond cousin is particularly attractive. But then, it breaks out into an Old Skool Dancehall-led bridge with the classic rhythmic clave of ‘oneeeeee-twooo-and’ x2 dominant across the instruments but with the funky piano breaking out on its own – allowing Koffee to nod to two classic genres in one, creating a beautifully-executed piece of work.
Run Away borders on the AfroPop, with its stuttering bass and drum arrangement mixed with major-to-minor chord progressions and funky electric guitar line, along with a delicate electric piano. But there are some elements of Reggae thrown in – like the half-time guitar skank and broken bubble rhythm on the keys – both of which occasionally break out into full phrases. Where I'm From then moves Gifted into something Neo Soul again - sitting between Soca (note the half-time ‘oneee-and-ah’ beat on the kick/brushed snare), Soul (with those Doo-Wop backing vocals) and Afrobeats (the use of kette and lilting acoustic guitar). It’s fast, frantic and fascinating – and Koffee’s singjay is just phenomenal.
The previously huge hit West Indies, with production from Iotosh, saw Koffee bring breezy, soft-touch Dancehall vibes to the masses. Mashing up Calypso-style dampened guitars and synths, Afrobeats-feeling shakers, Soulful electric keys but a bass and kick which takes the Dancehall clave and splits it up was a genius move from all involved – and gives the wind of the genre but with none of the abrasiveness. Smooth, summery and oh-so-2021.
Pull Up is pure, delicious Afroswing from UK-Ghanaian producer JAE5. The stuttering use of a synth balafon, snare and hi-hats creates a stop-and-start feel not unlike Two Step (and its UK cousin, Garage). Its bass is almost a “donk” in terms of its targeted wobble. Slightly grimy, it winds up and down the track creating that signature swing. The inclusion of a funky sax with its solo bridge is inspired and overall Pull Up shows Koffee and JAE5 at their cool, sophisticated best. The album’s closing track Lockdown brings straight-up AfroPop sounds as the track merges stuttering and intricate percussion with smooth keys, a winding bass, some detailed use of EDM-like synths – but also a nice nod to Dancehall across the keys’ rhythmic clave. Again, the pleasure here (like much of the album) is the instrumental ebbing and flowing which creates a gorgeous palette of light and shade.
Overall, Gifted achieves its musical aims: showcasing Koffee’s influences and loves across numerous genres while paying tribute to artists that have come before her.
Vocally, the album also cements her as a highly gifted individual. She effortlessly glides between straight vocal and singjay across all the tracks. Her voice sits comfortably in a fairly broad range – dipping down into a contralto and then up to a mid-range soprano, filling all the spaces in between. The album’s best example of her skill is perhaps Lockdown – where she sings a complex melodic line on the main chorus, higher up her register, before diving down into her contralto range for a slick and rhythmically intricate singjay – taking a basic stanza and embellishing it, before doing the same higher up her register. Stunning and technically deft in equal measure.
Lyrically, what’s interesting about Gifted is that Koffee’s political and social commentary is less abrupt and caustic then some of her peers and mentors. That’s not to say it’s not ‘message music’, but there’s an undeniable positivity which pervades the album.
From x10’s reminder of remembering that however tough life gets, we should be thankful for being alive, to Lonely’s love vibes and West Indies’ celebratory feel. Gifted’s near-Song of Praise to Jah is juxtaposed with Koffee’s brilliant critique that with success under Babylon comes the knowledge that if it wasn’t for this, the system would (as she sings) “lock me up fi me dreadlock”; again some reviewers have misrepresented this track as being about “designer name drops and empty boasts” – not the case at all.
But when Koffee does deal with the negative, she doesn’t hold back. Shine deals with “babylon vampirie’ (the systemic marginalisation and entrenchment in poverty of poor people) and maintaining your faith in the face of it; Gifted gives a searing introspection on her own privilege and Where I’m From’s discussion around growing up in destitution is powerful. Overall, once more the lyrical content is a reflection of Koffee’s life to this point – and it’s a well-balanced set of narratives.
Gifted is undeniably a master-stroke from Koffee and her team. If you were to piece together an album that reflected the lived experience and cultural influences of a 22-year-old from Spanish Town, then this would be it: filled with hope but also an acute awareness of the problems in the world. Koffee is an exceptionally talented artist, and this album shows her at the peak of her powers. It will stand as one of the most accomplished releases of 2022.