On his latest studio album, Cruel Santino is back to world building, creating a daring new sonic universe that's entrancing but ultimately flawed.
The Wachowskis, Lana and Lily, are two of the most successful and innovative filmmakers in the world. The famous sibling duo over the years have developed a strong reputation for carefully building and bringing to life dystopian worlds and concocted universes. Some of their greatest and most popular movies ー The Matrix, The Matrix Revisited, Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending ー are all set in unique alternate realities which are heavily reliant on detail for verisimilitude. In an interview with the New York Times, the siblings admitted to studying and seeking inspiration from the works of Ridley Scott and George Lucas, two legendary directors who are also famous for building memorable alternate worlds.
Cruel Santino, one of the leading figures in West Africa’s famed Alte scene, shares certain similarities with the aforementioned directors not least because he’s a filmmaker himself but like The Wachowskis, Scott and Lucas, he’s also keen on world building. While his earlier works, ー2011’s Diaries Of A Loner, the sequel Diaries Of A Loner: Birth Of Santi and cult classic Suzie’s Funeral ー both as Ozzy B and Santi, were stacked with genre-bending bangers which weren’t necessarily tied to an overarching concept or set to an imaginary universe, his propensity for world building wouldn’t start until 2019’s Mandy and The Jungle, his debut album.
In a 2016 interview discussing Mandy and The Jungle, Santi revealed: “I want people to immerse themselves into the world Mandy & The Jungle is built within.” Sadly, Mandy was a long way from being immersive. While it contains some of his best records to date, a few of which were accompanied by dark, innovative and off-center visuals, the world which Cruel Santino tried to build was vastly incomplete. The 30-year-old clearly had grand ideas; he looked to build an entrancing universe stuffed with a large chunk of his influences (he even promised an accompanying comic book which was never made available to the public) which unfortunately felt patchy due to a lack of proper execution and this seems like what he was looking to correct with his latest album Subaru Boys: FINAL HEAVEN.
Subaru Boys, like its predecessor, is also meant to be an immersive project set in what sounds like a futuristic world. In a bid to give fans the full experience, there were no pre-released singles and hours before its release, the singer and rapper requested for fans to listen through the 21 tracks without skipping. “Just let it play and escape,” he added. Stepping into this new world, it immediately feels and sounds more complete than Mandy, replete with computerised sounds, countless anime references, soundbites and intermittent voiceovers, it’s however not without its own shortcomings.
The album opens with the Brazy-assisted “MATILDA", a largely incomprehensible trap-influenced number that’s elevated by stellar production work from Genio. “I TOLD GUS I’M DREAMIN” like “MATILDA” is also pretty unfocused, at least lyrically. Santino seems to be singing about a girl who hurt him before proceeding to deliver more scatter-brained lyrics. “I couldn’t count the things i did to get you girl / I even lied to my demons / Talking bitter you a nasty nasty girl / Sorry you are not my friend” he sings, sounding a little juvenile. This, however, seems to be a running theme throughout the album. A lot of the songs are filled with incoherent words held together by colourful, infectious melodies and amazing production. This, in truth, has always been part of his major appeal.
Before Santino embarked on his relentless journey of world building, he seems to have always lived in his own. He even coined his own mode of speech labelled “Santinese” by most fans. Think Thugger’s Slime language or Enya’s Loxian language. He has this unique ability of putting together nonsensical words and making them sound extremely pleasing. On the boisterous “FINAL CHAMPION”, one of the instant standouts, he sings words like “Dey do me one kin / Okpotulakamuyessir / E dey touch touch e my body” which is largely meaningless, but there’s a charisma and confidence with which he delivers such lyrics that one isn’t too bothered with what he’s saying. The same goes for the Koffee-assisted “DEADMAN BONE” where he attacks Genio and Gmk’s beats with a ferocious flow, slipping in and out of tight pockets, one isn’t too concerned with what he’s actually saying.
Apart from Santino’s incredibly catchy flows and melodies and excellent production work courtesy of close collaborators like Genio, Gmk, Odunsi The Engine, Le Mav and Tyler Turner, another major highlight of Subaru Boys is the contributions of New York singer and songwriter Gus Dapperton. The 24-year-old appears on “BEAUTIFUL NOTHING”, a record centered around a broken relationship. Here, one of the rare instances where Santino is crystal clear, he gives an impassioned performance, singing lines like “I’m afraid of something / Beautiful nothing / I was in it for something / And you were in it for nothing” over eerie synths and a chilling beat. Gus also delivers an equally impressive performance, questioning the intents of his love interest. On “WICKED CITY” they combine once again, with Gus stealing most of the spotlight here. Not only is his production here outstanding but the whole record is built around his delightful and dreamy hook which opens the song and immediately teleports you to this sinister “WICKED CITY’’ in Subaru world. While Gus delivers two incredible performances, he isn’t the only standout collaborator. Elsewhere, Skepta slides and glides on the penultimate track “DIRTY EYES EVIL MANNERS” while Amaarae delivers one of the album’s better verses on “BORN AGAIN” in her usual whispery vocals.
At 21 tracks and a runtime of 1 hour, Subaru Boys is fairly lengthy and it’s apparent the world Santino has built here is pretty expansive and diverse. The burning question that many might ask after the ending seconds of “SA-KURACHAN” plays out is what exactly is this daring new world that Santino has created. It’s clearly an entrancing sonic universe filled with a host of his many influences but then what’s the thread that ties it all together? In all fairness, only Santino might have an answer to this question and that’s undoubtedly one of its flaws. He has built this glossy, glamorous world that many might find incomprehensible not because of its complexities or because it is multi-layered but because it is, for the most part, incoherent and a little muddled, at least thematically. One can only imagine if the same attention to detail that was paid to the incredible and polished sonics of this album was paid to other quarters, say the underlying theme or concept, then we would definitely have had a gamechanger on our hands.