Johnny Cradle’s debut eponymous LP is one of the most important albums of the year: Track-by-track review
After three years, Johnny Cradle finally releases its clearest expression of the underdog philosophy and it’s called, ‘Johnny Cradle’
I have been following Johnny Cradle since 2014 and, in those days, the band really had one single and several reimagined covers to its name. Today, there’s a new record deal, a new album and a new ambition. What’s remained the same? The characteristic and indomitable underdog philosophy.
You can hear that philosophy in everything on Johnny Cradle’s debut eponymous album. “Asdlali,” “Salut,” “Men Like Us” and the widely known, “uLate,” give a 360 definition of what Johnny Cradle stands for. Meanwhile, tracks like “Mahambelala,” “Sadakwa” and “Bangphete” show that you can still have some fun in between your hustle.
Sakie is the only songwriter for the 10-track album and by his own account, he doesn’t actually write; he just freestyles until he gets it right. And it’s clear in the album’s frantic cadences. If you’ve seen the dude on stage, you’ll know he can move from his classic sidestep swing to moshpit manic in seconds. That energy is clear in the record’s conscious noise and strategic harmony too. It’s even in Sakie’s made-up words and phrases (zaka-zoom-zaka-zaaa).
Matthew Fink called Johnny Cradle, “The most important band in the country.” This debut album is easily one of the most important albums to come out of this year. Read my track-by-track review below and stream the album via Apple Music after the jump.
Sitting in the listening session for this album about a week ago, there was plenty talk about how it is a true representation of who Johnny Cradle is. I’m not going to get into that because I wrote about the underdog philosophy at length last year. What “Mahambelala” demonstrates as an opening track is the brutal honesty required to live up to that ideal. Johnny is, for all intents and purposes, a sleeper-arounder (if we’re direct translating). But since he’s not actually after attention although he’s “lonely as fuck,” (verse one) he finds some solace in music (verse two), even if it takes putting up with white corporate South Africa in order to get there.
It’s worth mentioning that the DJ intro and synchronised scratching is welcomed addition. With Chris out the band, the worst thing would’ve been for Lazola to end up being a hype DJ relegated to stage performances only.
A lot of the poetry of “Mahambelala” is painted clearer in “eXOne”. For one, Johnny now calls himself a “sanafabitch” and we also now know that it’s actually the void of one girl who he was actually trying to fill. It’s sublimely placed after “Mahambelala” in that “eXOne” really reads like a stream of consciousness more than a traditional song. For one, there isn’t any clear verses or chorus. It’s one Kelis-esque “I hate you so much right now” soliloquy which culminates in a cacophony of noise (which I fucking love). It’s the perfect ode to melancholic love.
Don’t sleep on the title of the track though. That “German engine” we hear it about in “Mahambelala” is revealed to be a “BM double” on this track. So BMW X1 wouldn’t be too far off, methinks. But of course, there’s also the girl – possibly his one and only ex. (This song was written by Sakie himself and he strikes me as the type to be very conscious about who he dates but let’s get back to Johnny Cradle.) And for you sickening romantics out there, there’s also XO in there. You’re welcome.
Let’s face it. Johnny Cradle is the modern tragic hero. But part of that means he doesn’t play (another direct translation). This guy isn’t concerned about how long you’ve been in the game for and how much clout you may think you have. He’s the underdog come to shake the table at the last minute. Even if you didn’t know two words of Xhosa, it’s pretty clear that the melody of this song is structured in exactly the same format as a protest song and they pretty much perform it that way too. I wrote about Johnny Cradle being the rebel noise of the black millennial back in May so cross-reference when you’re done with this.
There’s something about being black that always reminds you that no matter what socio-economic position you may find someone else in, you respect them regardless, especially if they’re older than you. The domestic in your home becomes auntie. The waiter at your table becomes bhuti. And so it applies to the janitor, garbage collector, truck driver, gold miner, bus driver, train driver, teacher – you name it. Johnny Cradle spends track four of this project, “Salut,” honouring everyone who’s made him who he is today. And it’s literally everyone. All of our collective hustles are for the benefit of all of us.
There’s a lot to be grateful for but then there’s also all the shit and stuff. Johnny Cradle, an underdog himself, made it thanks to the hustles of fellow underdogs and he celebrates them for it in “Salut”. But then there are those in power who have been elected to foster the necessary conditions for underdogs to make it “cause that’s [their] job anyway.” The phrase, “tshintsha mfondini” is repeated a total five times on this, the fifth track of the album. If that doesn’t drive the message home, you need to go back to your ABCs.
It’s the shortest song on the album but it’s also the the one that allows for the most interpretation. If you’ve ever related to Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone,” then you can finally give that Ty’s friend a name: “Runaweyi”. But try to think of this song as a bridge returning us to Johnny’s melancholic romance and sex life. It’s about to get lit.
So, naturally, the first place dude ends up is a club with all his mates and some girls he’s got an eye for, be they cuffed or otherwise. If you’re planning on putting on a party any time soon, there’s a decent grocery list of alcoholic beverages in this song which can serve you and your friends well as you get down to “Sadakwa”. During the listening session, Sakie mentions that, for him, the Johnny Cradle album is dance music. Part of “Sadakwa’s” get-down appeal is that infectious guitar riff. It’s so satisfyingly sinister, it even mimics the rise and fall of a night out spent drinking more than you should.
Hide your girls. And that’s this song’s entire review.
If you’re not sold on the dance music theory by now, go back through your music library and revisit some Arthur Mafokate, whose “Mnike” happens to be sampled on this track. Ray Phiri also lives on in this track thanks to a sample of Stimela’s “Zwakala”.
Probably the most bewitching thing about this song is that, for all intents and purposes, this is a sex jam. But you can also dance to it. Because let’s face it: getting down with someone on the dance floor can often lead to getting down under the sheets.
Men Like Us
When I spoke to Johnny Cradle for the first time back in 2016, they made it very clear to me that the underdog philosophy is for everyone, “regardless of your skin colour.” I still believe that to be true. This album is very black though and as it should it be; the only songwriter on the album is a black, Xhosa man. But even as Chris has left the band, it’s good to know that this song and its message of inclusivity still made the record.
My personal choice for a title would’ve been ‘iSkorokoro,’ for obvious reasons. (Sidenote: I’m sensing a sample here of “Skorokoro” by Lumumba featuring Condry Ziqubu but the album credits don’t make mention of samples so I can’t confirm.) It’s important that the song is, in fact, titled, “Men Like Us,” because that’s what it’s all about. Everything from their indomitable spirit preached as early as verse one to the way they have each other’s backs in verse two, this song, more than any other, does the job of characterising Johnny Cradle away from any one human which, if you ask Sakie, is just the way he likes it.
Tebogo introduced this song at the listening session and he introduced it by way of saying that for the last three years, this one song and one song alone has carried Johnny Cradle. That’s a lifetime in this business.
I love ten track albums and I believe all albums should be that long. As limiting as that number is, I’m glad that “uLate” is last on the album. Not only does it belong there in the arch of the story of the album (more on this later) but no one wants to hear the first single early on in the album; God forbid first. (“Runaweyi” is technically the official first single but everyone knows it was supposed to be “Bangphete” because I mean, come on. A bop to end all bops!)
I remember watching a Chris Martin interview in promotion of Coldplay’s then-newest release, Ghost Stories. He spoke about how the album’s first eight tracks were a team effort and message but that the closer, “O” was for him. It wouldn’t be an unfair assessment comparing that to Sakie and “uLate” because “uLate” is Sakie’s story. Why it works as a Johnny Cradle song though, is that even with its specifics, Sakie’s push to inspire drive within the underdog watercolours the song as an allegory. The message: “I moved to the city of gold / I’ve got a city of goals / Next time you see me I’ll have a fist full of gold.” And everyone can relate to that.