There’s a great comparison to be made between Portuguese tunesmith Branko and legendary rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. Branko’s latest album Atlas continues the producer’s search for something similar to the subject of one of Bambaataa’s most iconic cuts – the perfect beat. For Branko, that sound synergizes American Top 40 pop tastes and the best that emergent global bass has to offer. This album is his best effort at closing the once wide gap between the two styles to date. Atlas is a booming collection of progressive anthems that may not top the charts just yet, but certainly pushes underground dancefloors closer to the mainstream.
The key to unlocking this album is to note the importance of hip-hop culture’s blueprint as a guiding force over global popular culture. More than ever, iconoclastic producers are important to the culture infiltrating all genres and becoming the best in the game. No, DJ Mustard and Mike WiLL Made-It aren’t here, but the absolute top tier of underground names are. Left coast MPC master Mr. Carmack assists on seductive, smooth, and classic Sade-style zouk bass jam “Let Me Go.” Jersey club pioneer DJ Sliink gets hyphy and tropical on the stunting and choppy “Fluxo.” Both productions sound like Branko taking carefully curated baby steps towards a futuristic sound with a bigger level of impact.
Vocals also drive hits, and this album is best when it sounds like Branko’s beats are serving as a Tower of Babel unto which a global cornucopia of artists are speaking. The grooves on these tracks create a universal language deciphered by those who know great funk when they hear it and feel soul music in every facet of their lives.
Rising lyricist Princess Nokia makes a superstar feminist statement on baile-trap bomb “Take Off.” Nonku Phiri’s yearning vocals shine on the aforementioned “Let Me Go,” while kwaito superstars The Ruffest provide the perfect timbre to add an emotional pull to breezy, brazen, and celebratory Afro-beat soul track “On Top.” Hard-nosed true school rappers Mr. MFN eXquire and Don Cesão – being from New York and Brazil respectively – would seem an odd pairing for “Fluxo,” but the distance between their styles ends up being a straight, clear line that cuts through the bullshit, and the track ultimately works.
Branko is also the head of Lisbon-based Enchufada and one fifth of Buraka Som Sistema. Both the label and the band have excelled in the past at operating like a Noah’s Ark that collects producers and genres floating aimlessly in the sonic sea. Atlas collaborators The CLERK, Alex Rita, Bison, Lewis CanCut, and Fellow represent four continents of production talent (all with Enchufada releases), housed under one roof where their sounds are most comfortable.
The CLERK collaborates with Branko on the album’s eponymously titled opening track. It’s jungle-trap by way of rhythm and blues, but tips the balance in the direction of deep African vibes. It sets the table well for the Top-40-pop-but-different direction that the album takes. “Whole Night” is a standout track too, as Lewis CanCut joins in to create a techno-kuduro track that features an insistent synth beneath a thick series of organic drum loops. South African emcee Okmalumkoolkat adds a perfect touch of spice to the top line of the production. Branko finds significant artistic inspiration on this album from the active and excellent South African underground scene, and it’s an important statement as to how much of an eye we should all be keeping on the Southern tip of the African continent for sonic movements defining the underground.
Branko’s ability to sample the world’s sounds – and then synthesize them into left-leaning and catchy anthems – is Atlas’ most significant selling point. As previously mentioned, Branko’s on the search for the perfect beat, and in marshaling the best of the world’s underground producers to assist him in his quest, he’s closer than ever before. From zouk bass to trap to Afro-soul, Atlas shows that Branko has the whole world in his left hand, while his right index finger is finding its unifying dancefloor pulse.