Over the recent history of contemporary Ghanaian music, very few group acts have managed to consistently entertain and actively influenced youth culture with as much power as have R2Bess. Ever since their sleeper cult hit, Yawa Girl which brought them from Tema’s competitive and graciously talented underground world to the mainstream Hip-Life audience in Ghana and beyond, they have cemented their mastery of the form with seemingly casual displays of their dexterity, backed by a stellar catalog of hits, whilst clearing the path of the new wave. Indeed, the Tema-based juggernauts defy the rigid classification of a musical group act and are better described as a movement, institutionalized in the zeitgeist by their name/mantra, Refuse 2 Be Broke. (R2Bees). Mugees and Paedae who are the pistons driving this culture are back to remind us all of this dominance with their third full length studio album, Site 15.
The 16-track record released in March 2019 is led by cover artwork depicting an aerial shot over some part of Tema, presumably a place where some of their stories are born. This hints at attempting a panoramic/reflective overview of the social setting of their origin of the music. We expect to follow an open surgery of the nature of the hustle, detailing the things we go through whilst refusing to be broke in this harsh and unforgiving urban environment. Yet the actual ride which is just about an hour long takes a few welcome detours.
The album begins on a laidback note with the silky intro track Straight from Mars featuring Wizkid. The atmospheric swirling synth chords create a mellow and chilled mood that is punctuate by Wizkid (a faithful pilgrim to the shrine of R2Bess ever since he started visiting Ghana to work) and Muguees play tag with the flow, drifting in and out of each other’s hooks. As an intro it rouses interest in what is to come, however, it appears to present more about the posture from which the record is approached, which is a very calm and collected mood, rather than establishing solid thematic threads.
The track that follows, Sunshine, is much more up to speed with this sizzling bounce that accentuates Mugees’ maverick vocal performance. The track swirls beautifully into Picture, even subtly repurposing a distinct chord from the previous track. This ballad leans more towards vintage Hip-Life and you could very easily imagine Nana Boro on this if it was 2009. The pace is gentle and welcoming as Mugees croons again, this time with King Promise and Paedae for company.
Dangerous is another stand out cut from the project with a more linear sonic signature linking it to Highlife music, with the tingling electric guitar riffs that trot around the snappy metronomic snare pattern. Despite sounding a warning through the lyrics, the songs has a very playful mood to it. Indeed, it’s at this point that the strength of the project becomes more apparent, which is the beautiful production on it, mostly supplied by long-time collaborator, Killbeatz and Killmatic.
R2Bees take you back to the roots of the Hip-Life sound by sticking to what they have done best over the years, which is resorting to the soul in their expression. The group always find a way to relay their massages over a sound that is relatable or familiar but still is fresh and energizing. This becomes especially poignant if you consider the climate in which this record is released, where algorithms are determined to lump all the idiosyncrasies of our contemporary musical forms as one thing, afro-something. Yesterday, one of their better cuts of the project for instance, feature very minimal production with a gentle bounce invoked by the spaced out drum loop and deep low-end piano chords that are highlighted by synth beeps that could easily have come from a Burger Highlife song. However, everything come together at the right pace, with Mugees again leading the charge, with some of his very best vocal work, weaving in and out of singing and rapping. The song rouses a nostalgia, yet the emotions still feel alive honest.
Site 15 is far from the “Belly” or “Shottas” you expect when you preview it from afar. However, the project ends up being an honest testament to the legacy of hip life music. It serves as a reminder of the diversity in contemporary African music, and how many unique strands can exist at the same time. R2Bees pay homage to the sonic legacy that allow them to be daring enough to define their sounds, yet simultaneously lift up the new-age grooves they help shape, like on Boys’ Kasa. Despite being mildly wayward theme-wise, you still get to the soul of the Tema Boys’ sound which seems to be soulful and gritty and everything in between.
Written by Hakeem Adam