Even though the album came back strong in 2016, singles were still important for artists’ visibility and for listeners with a short attention span. The following is the top 25 best South African hip-hop songs of last year, listed in no particular order.
Stream the best South African hip-hop songs from last year in our ‘Mzansi Heat’ Apple Musicplaylist and read about our individual selections below.
DJ Citi Lyts feat. Sjava and Saudi “Vura”
Three production geniuses—Ruff (Emtee “Roll Up”), Bizboy (Da L.E.S “Heaven”) and Lunatik (K.O. “Caracara”)—collaborated on what is one of 2016’s best beats. The bassline alone deserves an award. Then there’s the subtle percussion and keys in the background. Sjava’s mbhaqanga-esque drawl gives the song a quintessential Sowetan feel. “Vura” is a good example of South Africans owning trap music and not just copying and pasting what Americans are doing. A stone-cold South African classic song.
Easily the second biggest song of 2016—after Babes Wodumo’s “Wololo”—“Ngud’” is Kwesta’s breakout hit. It went gold, and so did DaKAR II, the album it’s taken off of. The producer, DJ Maphorisa, slowed down Antena’s house classic “Camino Del Sol (Joakim Remix)” to an old school kwaito tempo, making it a woozy beer anthem for the shebeens. Kwesta’s baritone gave the song an x-factor and fits the mood perfectly. Definitely one of the biggest hip-hop songs of this era.
N’veigh is one of the most potent lyricists South Africa has ever seen. The Cap City Records signee has been making radio-friendly singles over the past few years. A few months ago he dropped “Denneboom,” a street-centric rappity rap banger produced by Trompie Beatmochini. The emcee raps for three minutes straight, devouring the grimy boom bap beat without a hook, just a few effective poses. The ex-battle rapper spits quotable after quotable showing that he’s still one of the best to ever do it.
Youngsta is part of the new crop of South African emcees who are ensuring the art of lyricism is not going to die. Last year, he gave Tumi and Nasty C a run for their money on DJ Switch’s “Way it Go.” On “Sleep for the Rich,” a collaboration with Boyznbucks’ Stilo Magolide, Youngsta spits two solid 16s replete with Cape Coloured slang you won’t hear from any other rapper but him. Even Stilo Magolide brought his A-game on this street-certified banger, which, in an ironic turn of events, got slept on by the rest of the country.
This song proves what a talent Emtee is. His hooks are the best, and he also drops a great verse which combines rapping and singing without any effort. Yanga drops yet another notable verse. Stogie T, on his verse, reflects on how far he has come from being another struggling artist to being so well-off his biggest struggle is choosing between St. Tropez or Champs-Élysées. “By Any Means” is one of the most well-crafted songs on Stogie T’s brilliant self-titled album. This could be one of his biggest songs.
Out of the few singles he released this year, this was Supa Mega’s finest. The beat is ice cold, with a bassline that drones under sinewy synths. AKA spits solid verses, so does Yanga, who is slowly but surely becoming a lyricist of note. Lyrically, AKA is basking on his impressive track record, asserting his position in the game: “Last five years ain’t shit without me/ Most consistent, I goes the distance.” Add a lightly autotuned catchy hook and you have one of the most solid street bangers of the year.
“Jubilee noLigaMo” is a song about Solo’s late grandmother and brother. He’s musing on each one of them, hoping they are proud of what he’s become. It’s one of many personal songs on the rapper’s latest album, .Dreams.B.Plenty. “Jubille noLigaMo” is smooth and mellow which works with the song’s content. Not the most popular release of the year, but a great song nonetheless.
Rouge’s breath control on her single, “Sheba Ngwan O’,” is that of the pros. She uses a fast-pace flow without being wordy. The emcee sings as well as she raps, and “Sheba Ngwan O’” is a great combination of vocals, raps and a beat. The producer Whichi 1080 gave Rouge another one of his bass-heavy bangers, and she knew exactly what to do with it. Rouge gets better with every single, and “Sheba Ngwan O’” is her best effort so far.
Another impressive production from Whichi 1080, “Come to my Kasi” sees two of the most exciting South African rappers deliver impressive verses over an equally impressive beat. The rappers each paint vivid vignettes about their hoods. Priddy Ugly’s rhyme schemes are complex and recurring. Youngsta spits a vicious verse which is reflective of how hard his hood is. Solid.
MarazA stretched it a bit on his biggest hit to date, “Gwan.” He rapped in Fanagalo, an amalgamation of English and Zulu—the language used in the diamond and gold mines of South Africa. It worked in his favour. The result was one of the most innovative hip-hop songs to come out of South Africa, and it solidified MarazA’s presence in the SA music industry. It was the most popular hip-hop song of 2016, up there with “Ngud’” by Kwesta and Cassper Nyovest and “Vura” by DJ Citi Lyts.
“Mayo” has a feel which is neither hazy nor dry. Yung Swiss sang the catchiest hooks of 2016. From sing-songy verses (Tellaman), to raw rhyming (Shane Eagle), “Mayo” managed to turn a diverse guest list into a coherent posse track of some sort. It was an anthem for the wavy kids who call everything “sauce.”
Ma-E was on a roll this year. He released an album and a string of consistently dope singles. In his transformation as a single artist, Ma-E has managed to blend his township slang with the aura of the trap soundscape. On “Lie 2 Me,” AKA delivers one of his formidable hooks and a show-stealing verse (not that Ma-E’s is any weak), in what is one of the most beautiful collaborations of the year.
Shane Eagle’s “Cutting Corners” is straight from the heart. The rapper is using his own story to encourage those who might be facing discouraging challenges in their lives. He does that over keys that induce emotion. His tone is conversational, making it feel like he’s talking directly to you, than talking at you.
A-Reece’s album opener for Paradise is one of the strongest songs on the whole project. “Paradise” displays everything the young rapper can do—rap with the technical know-how of a pro and sing his own hooks without autotune. He tells the story of how his life has changed since he became a rapper in the major league.
DJ Switch assembled four formidable lyricists for one of the hardest joints of 2016. On “Now or Never,” Shane Eagle, Reason, Kwesta and ProVerb didn’t worry about making a radio-friendly song, just the best bars they had for the raw beat by Ganja Beatz. The result is one of the most talked-about rap songs of the year, with the most impressive verses reminiscent of SA hip-hop in the mid-2000s. The song was so popular among hip-hop acolytes that DJ Switch made two remixes for it. And there were countless unofficial remixes.
Off Da L.E.S’ 2015 album North God came “Real Stuff,” a song that was released as a single in June this year. Just like his 2014 hit, “Heaven,” “Real Stuff” feels like an AKA song, as he is on the hook and takes the first verse. AKA is low-key a hook killer, and he delivers another catchy chorus for “Real Stuff.” Maggz and Da L.e.s each drop fitting verses over the droning bassline. “Real Stuff” is one of those songs you can’t fault anywhere—the raps are tight, the hook is proper and the production is amazing.
Cape Town rapper Kanyi has been laying low for a few years. In 2016, she returned with a refreshing new single. It evokes spirits in how her voice merges with the robust drums courtesy of the Swedish drum band Yakumbe. Kanyi is still spitting mystical messages that will only be understood by those in the same height as her, spiritually. Kanyi understands the concept of evolution as an artist, and isn’t getting left behind. “Andizenzi” is Kanyi like no one has heard before, and can’t help but fall in love.
Even though he’s versatile, Maggz is more at home over regular boom bap drums. On “Hip-Hop (Bebathini)” he is reminiscent of the Maggz who dropped the mixtape Sorry For The Long Wait ten years ago. And not that he’s even trying to shine by biting his past self—the emcee is just being himself, and it’s working. “Hip-Hop (Bebathini)” was a treat for lovers of boom bap and raw rap. But Maggz, where is that album?
Emtee could sit and not release an album for another year. He will still have enough singles from his 2015 masterpiece, Avery. The latest video single from the album is “We Up.” The song was a fan favourite, before it even got the visual treatment, in which the artist showcases his singing skills—hitting high notes effortlessly in both English and vernacular. “We Up” is a hustler’s anthem. Emtee encourages by sharing his struggle stories, from being a nobody to being a leader of the new school. And the video drives the point home well.
“Man, I can’t put a finger on it, but something in the air was so magical,” sings Cape Town rapper Uno July about the 90s era on “90s Laaitie,” a song off of his Uno ‘n Only album. If you were born in the 80s and grew up in the 90s, then you’ll definitely relate. The Cape Town rapper reminisces about Wu Tang Clan, De La Soul, The Fugees, and a time when, in his own words, the only thing Americans knew about Africa was The Lion King and Sarafina, over a mellow instrumental with a droplet sound for a snare. The song’s smooth feel captures the nostalgia, and so does the video with its blur effect resembling the fuzzy TV screens of 90s.
K.O is vicious on “Papa Action.” Nothing new there. But this time, the music is as grimy as his delivery. The song captures the aura of the notorious Papa Action, a character from the TV series Yizo Yizo. No one can mess with K.O in terms of flow, and on this song, he uses multiple patterns killing middle rhymes like they are nothing.
If not for the song itself, then consider showing love for Riky Rick’s cultural impact. The phrase sidl’ ukotini—which means being a fashion killer—has been added to South African street lexicon. Tweezy’s basslines still bang the hardest, and “Sidl’ ukotini” is no exception. Riky uses autotune on his verses and hook, which can be off-putting if you are listening to this song for any other purpose that doesn’t involve turning up. It’s more for the club and the whip than it is for your headphones.
It’s the robust 808s, the bassline, Tshego’s ethereal vocals, Cassper Nyovest’s verse, the Gemini major dancehall-influenced verse and… everything. “Hennessy” is simply a banger. There’s no less trite way to put it. It’s a feel-good song that couldn’t have come at a more fitting time. It’s one to bump in a ride full of friends having the time of your lives before the festive season is over. And what a stellar verse from Nyovest.
Nasty C probably didn’t foresee how big “Hell Naw” was going to be. It was just a gesture of gratitude towards his fans, evident on the video which shows Nasty C performing and interacting with them in different shows. The song blew up and became one of the biggest hip-hop songs of 2016. The hook is catchy and the rhymes are tight, as we’ve grown to expect from the 19-year-old rapper. If you copped Bad Hair (or Bad Hair Extensions), you might have noticed he extended the song a bit, adding an extra verse over a slowed down version of the same beat. Nasty C really is that dude right about now.
DJ Vigi assembled three of the most technically-skilled rappers on “Bang Out.” All three of them dropped scorching verses (K.O spits such venom as, “In the city, I played Monopoly, I played with action figures/ Now the game is our monopoly, we play with actual figures”). It’s still hard to tell who had the best verse. The production is also not be overlooked, with a bassline that demands to be felt and some pads floating at the back completing the song. South African DJs got the juice.
Sabelo Mkhabela is a writer from Swaziland, currently based in Cape Town. He also drops award-winning tweets as @SabzaMK.