After his October 2016 #FillUpTheDome concert, which saw close to 40 000 people in attendance, South African rapper Cassper Nyovest has seen his fame and his bragging rights burgeon. Real name Refiloe Maele Phoolo, his is the quintessential ‘from grass to grace’ story. In 2006, at the age of 16, he dropped out of high school, to his parents’ chagrin, and left for Johannesburg to pursue his passion for music. For years he wandered in the wilderness that is the music industry’s underground. His breakthrough would come in 2014 with the release of his hit single, Doc Shebeleza. An album followed months later and the world witnessed the birth of a star.

Back to basics

In his music Cassper has never passed up on the opportunity to remind listeners of his modest beginnings and of the lavishness he now enjoys. It is for this reason that his fans – young people, mostly – love him. They see in Cassper who they are (young and hungry for success) and who they can be (young and accomplished). The same recipe is followed in his latest body of work.

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The 16-track-long Thuto follows in the tradition of Cassper’s earlier albums, Tsholofelo and Refiloe, which are named after members of his family. It is dedicated to his elder sister and means ‘education’ or ‘learning’ in Tswana. On the album cover, Cassper is pictured in a contemplative mood, half his face visible and gold-rimmed eyeglasses perched on his nose. What is striking about this album cover is that in contrast with the black-and-white background, Cassper’s jewellery—his eyeglasses, his wristwatch, his necklace—retain their golden sheen. This sets the mood for the music on Thuto: ruminations on the past and its travails, sometimes cheery predictions for the future, and a deep-seated appreciation for the present.

Self-consciousness at play

The first five tracks can be summarised in one word: self-reflection. American neo-singer Goapele features on two songs, Confused and Destiny. In the former, which kicks off the album, Cassper unfurls his frustrations and doubts about his career, about ‘how the new nigga will always excite the crowd more’. He is unsure, scared even – a rather odd foot to put forward first, you might say. In the latter song, Goapele’s vocals are a beauty. She serves as an anchor, keeping things steady for Cassper to step in and dish out heartfelt lines on the complications of a relationship where hurt and distrust hold sway. The song samples South African Afro-pop group Malaika’s 2004 hit of the same title.

Cassper Nyovest at the 2014 Back to the City festival. 27 April 2014. Photo: Wiki commons

On I Wasn’t Ready For You, one of the two songs that Cassper’s Family Tree signee Tshego features in, the rapper is barefaced, opening himself up for scrutiny. He carries on his shoulders the blame for a failed relationship and recounts the ways he let the woman he loves down. ‘But I became a loner, started neglecting your love,’ he admits. December 2015 saw Cassper and his then girlfriend, Boitumelo Thulo, call it quits. It would not be overreaching to say that this song is perhaps a story of that break-up. As Karma Would Have It, an interlude, follows. Here fellow South African rapper Riky Rick posits that ‘love is something you gotta work at’.

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The legendary Tsepo Tshola lends his booming voice to Superman as Cassper Nyovest showers praise on his father while recounting the sacrifices he made to give him a better life. Cassper also uses the track as a reminder of the pressures society has foisted on fathers and men in general. ‘Too much pressure on the male figure, if you ain’t providing then you worthless,’ Cassper raps.

Young, wild and rich!

Tracks six to 13 are a slew of jams on popping bottles, fast cars, exotic women and chest-thumping. This is where Cassper reminds his listeners of his rich life, lest they get carried away with his purging of somber emotions. Bentley Coupé pays homage to Cassper’s newly acquired luxury car. Nyuku is a string of teases aimed at haters. We Living Good, Tshego’s second feature (and one on which the singer delivers a memorable hook), is boastful talk. The flow is punctuated in between by Top Floor(LifeWasNeverTheSame), an interlude in which Cassper and friends engage in street-smart slangs. Nadia Nakai, another Cassper protégé, swaggers through with her cocky lines on Top Shayela. Tito Mboweni is a victory chant. American DJ Dennis Ferrrer’s Touched the Sky is sampled on Touch the Sky. The thirteenth track, Ng’yekeleni, features Black Thought (aka Tariq Luqmaan Trotter), lead MC of the Philadelphia-based Hip-Hop collective The Roots, and the two exchange rapid-fire lines on fulfilled dreams.

Cassper Nyovest. Photo: Cassper Nyovest/Instagram

In between this assortment of celebrations, Cassper deems it fit (as if in compensation for their windiness and repetition) to insert a caveat. In We Living Good he advises listeners not to just drool over his good fortunes, but to ‘get inspired, do something’.

As the album approaches its crescendo, Cassper is somber again; the booze guzzled from the previous tracks has worn off. Push Through The Pain is a beautiful rendition of the struggles associated with the rise to fame. Cassper employs a tempered flow, his words are the focal point, and the beat in the background bounces gallantly. Baby Girl is a tepid effort at reggae dancehall, and it is quite forgettable. Amen Hallelujah is the album closer: an ode to members of Cassper’s family.

Months ago, on his Twitter page, Cassper revealed that he was keen on filling up the 90 000 capacity First National Bank Stadium in Johannesburg. That should not be too big a mountain to surmount. With this album, he has proven that he has enough knowledge for the task ahead.