Moonchild Sanelly – Phases
On the cover of her new album Phases, Moonchild Sanelly makes visual what is inherent to her as an artist: she is a multitude of things all at once. Though she had well established herself as an icon in her home country’s underground, South Africa’s Moonchild Sanelly has seen significant success in the past few years. Coming up from poetry and music circles in Durban, her distinctive ‘future ghetto punk’ aesthetic and sound always had significant potential for international crossover. It was with the rise of Durban-made genre gqom that Sanelly began breaking through internationally, culminating with a spot as featured guest artist on Beyoncé’s The Gift single, My Power. But Sanelly has always existed in tandem with gqom and amapiano rather than as part of it. Her sound, a fusion of kwaito, hip-hop, electronic music and dancehall, is entirely unique to her. Perhaps more so than any other act in South African pop, Sanelly is remarkably versatile. She’s unafraid to subvert expectations and push her own boundaries. In particular, she finds significant inspiration outside the scope of what South Africa expects its Black artists to sound like. It’s part of what’s made her so appealing to a wider audience; an inherent eclecticism unbound by one particular genre or sonic identity. Recently, she’s been relegated to the boundaries of the amapiano scene, and has been releasing music that operated within amapiano’s conventions. Her latest album Phases is an attempt to break free. She’s at her most chameleonic, racing through a gamut of influences from riot girl punk rock to bubblegum pop, expanding the Moonchild universe further than ever before and reclaiming her identity as an artist who exists beyond what she’s been boxed into.
The conceptual premise of Phases sees Sanelly “nod to the different emotional and musical phases she navigated to bring the album to life.” Essentially a collage of her various musical interests and influences, Phases embraces multifacetedness as modality. Over the course of the first four tracks of Phases alone, Sanelly moves from boppy riot punk on the delightfully witty Undumpable, to dark kwaito-house on Demon, Cali hip-hop on Cute, to dank trap on April’s Fools Day. The album swerves through so many styles and ideas that it’s easy to get lost in the shopping cart, though Sanelly manages this by grouping tracks with similar energies together. These make up the ‘phases’ in question. The album’s first act, ending at Over You, is easily its most diverse and pop driven. From Money Tree, Phases shifts into a sort of jazzy R&B mood, with the downtempo groove of Favourite Regret and saucy sex jam Too Late. From Covivi, Sanelly slips into the amapiano style she’s become best known for. The album’s latter half is its least ambitious in terms of style, though there are standout moments such as the manic, ravey gqom of Bad Bitch Budget.
But where Phases really shines is in the moments where these references and influences collide and seemingly collapse in on themselves. Over You combines a sunny Lily Allen style piano hook with a slow trap beat and bars of tribal drums, throws in buzzy bass, and Sanelly’s own saccharine sing-song rap-speak. It’s most reminiscent of the sort of genre defying hip-pop that makes up M.I.A’s early cannon; a pastiche that defies definition or categorisation. Likewise, Phases is at its best when Sanelly lets her freak flag fly. The sheer absurdity of dust track Chicken is deliciously satisfying, as is Sanelly’s unhinged delivery on Let It Rip or irreverence on Strip Club and Undumpable. Her lyrics are refreshingly liberated; she speaks of her sexuality so matter of factly and with such bravado that it feels revolutionary in the scope of some of the styles she’s working with. There’s some gaze flipping going on with tracks like Soyenza, which pivots the mostly male dominated point of view of amapiano toward female desire. Phases also makes the most of its features, particularly Sad Night Dynamite on Demon and Trillary Banks who would easily steal Cute if it weren’t for Sanelly’s nursery-rhyme refrain.
On Phases, Moonchild looks to deliver the most complete version of herself and remind the world that she’s more than someone who can rhyme over a log drum. Its unbridled scope is entirely maximalist in approach, and while it may feel overstuffed at times, it’s held together by the delightful charisma of its superstar. Sanelly is easily one of the most distinct voices in South African underground and pop music today, and her fearlessness feels like the future of the country’s scene. “It’s about escape, about being free again,” she muses on Bird So Bad, and with Phases, she liberates herself by refusing to play by anyone’s rules but her own.
Watch the music video for Undumpable from Phases below.
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