When it comes to dropping knowledge over hip-hop and grime beats, who can do it like Akala?

Knowledge Is Power Volume 1 is definitely one of the highlight releases of 2012, and sees Akala on top form, educating, elevating, entertaining and inspiring over fresh hip-hop and grime instrumentals.

The first track, Educated Thug Shit, sets the tone nicely, challenging the listener’s notion of what a “thug” is, in collaboration with English Frank.

“Do you really really really know what a tug is? Think it’s just a man that moves on the road criminal? I think it’s a man that’d die for his principles.”

This gets to the core of what Knowledge Is Power is all about. Akala is constantly challenging his listeners to re-evaluate their concepts of what is ‘cool’, what is ‘gangsta’, what is ‘hard’; he wants us to see how these concepts are shaped by a mass media and corporate record industry that are fundamentally anti-poor and anti-black; he is helping to move the culture back to a place where knowledge is valued, where it is a weapon to be used against oppression, where it is ‘cool’ rather than ‘neeky’.

Akala gets on a laid-back, reflective vibe with Absolute Power, talking about the sense of powerlessness which is deliberately created in oppressed people in order to ensure they don’t rise up against the system that oppresses them.

What do they fear more than a working class black male with a brain
When our energy is harnessed, everything change
Look at Pac, look at Marley, look at Hendrix, look at Garvey
This is the potential that is wasted on a daily basis
A racist, classist world that we live in
Still we come from nothing and we educate millions

Who’s The Gangsta picks up a similar theme to Educated Thug Shit, over a heavy grime beat from from Ripperman. Akala looks at all the ‘gangsta rap’ and asks: who’s the real gangsta? Is it kids making bait rap videos claiming to be killers? Is it street hustlers? “Do we make the straps and the scales or just pack the jails?” And why do the real gangstas want us to think that we are the gangstas?

The last thing they want is for man with road energy
To stop killing one another and think cleverly
Ask why you’re living, where you’re living, how you’re living
Did you create the condition that you were raising a killing
If you didn’t, who did it? Is it really for the hood if our oppressors like our lyrics?
Only by crushing your aspirations can they maintain this here situation
Only by destroying the dreams of your kids, can they keep their unearned privilege
And that’s what it’s all about…

I’m So Cool is Akala’s unique take on rap braggadocio, that you have to hear to believe!

In A Message, Akala goes waaaaay beyond the limits of ‘acceptable’ hip-hop subject matter, exploring the issues of patriarchy, single parenthood and the the corrosive effect of male supremacy on the family. Selah’s chorus helps to make this a very moving, thoughtful piece of music.

On Otherside, Akala works with the legendary Jaja Soze to tell the ‘other side’ of the story – not the glamourised portrayal of the hood that you get from the music videos, but the tears, the pain, the contradictions.

The other side that you never see on television
The other side when a killer shed a tear in prison
The other side ain’t written in gold, it’s really cold
The other side is the truth, but it’s never been told
The other side ain’t no fake rap video
Just jail cells, funerals and mental homes
This rap shit used to be the news for the hood
Now everyone’s jumpin round like it’s all good

Really sees Akala showcasing his verbal dexterity over a Lavar-produced 6/8 beat and letting the wannabe rappers exactly how threatened he feels by their claims to be on his level 😉

Get Educated is another Lavar banger, this time on a heavy boom-bap tip. The message is loud and clear:

The most rebellious thing you can do is get educated
Forget what they told you in school, get educated
I ain’t sayin play by the rules, get educated
Get educated, get educated
Get educated, break the chains of their enslavement
Get educated, even if you’re on the pavement
Get educated, what a weapon that your brain is
Get educated, get educated

On Behind My Painted Smile, Akala and Lowkey give their listeners a glipse of the vulnerability and contradictions that lie behind the exterior of confidence and contentedness that they both project.

Behind my painted smile, when all the revolutionary noise is nothing but a lost little boy
Confused and insecure, arrogant and oversure
Egotistical prick, so come on, please praise me more

The echoes of Aimé Césaire, Steve Biko and Franz Fanon can be heard in Lowkey’s verse about being a victim of mental slavery:

Behind my smile there’s generations of pain
Self-hatred ingrained, miseducated my brain
Decimated the place where my dead relations were slain
Not just physically but mentally penetrated our veins

The last verse where the two rappers go back to back is a definite high point of the mixtape, and the laid-back Last Resort beat works perfectly.

Your Time is Over Now is a fitting eulogy-in-advance for colonialism, imperialism and western/white supremacy. Rapid-fire knowledge, moving chorus from Selah and a dope, energetic beat make this another standout track of the project.

As far as I can see, western supremacy’s the most anti-human force that’s ever lived
And we can all see the holes in the bottom of the tin
Right now the ship’s gonna sink
So we paint the Global South as the terrorist
Been living on their backs for half a millennium
It’s over now, explain that to these leaders
It’s nuclear war or accept new teachers

For Are You An MC, Akala brings in the undeniable skills of Durrty Goodz – one of the most gifted lyricists the UK has ever produced – and Dexplicit – one of the most respect producers on the grime scene – to provide a lesson to some of the up-and-coming MCs who might think that becoming an MC is a shortcut to respect and money. Heavy, heavy track!

Insert Truth Here is another very thought-provoking and philosophical track, its venom directed at those merchants of ‘absolute truth’ who want you to believe that everything they say is correct and there is no other truth. Particularly harmful are those ‘absolute truths’ that tell you to be happy with a system that oppresses you and to accept it as the natural order of things. As ever, Akala encourages his listeners to be active in learning and discovering truth for themselves, not just lapping up whatever’s put out on a plate for them. The intense beat from Skilloso works beautifully with the lyrics.

The final – and title – track is a spot-on ending to the mixtape. Akala fires off unforgiving triplets over bouncing drums and filtered strings, dropping knowledge about some of his favourite subjects: the African origins of hip-hop, and how corporations have bought control of the culture in order to promote racist, sexist, classist images. How do we fight back? We arm ourselves with knowledge: “C’mon my people stand up. Knowledge is power. Don’t let them tell you about yourself, never dash your wealth.”

The mixtape is an undeniable classic. I’m already looking forward to Volume 2!

The CD can be purchased exclusively from Mamstore.

You can buy the MP3s from iTunes, Amazon UK and elsewhere.

Akala’s blog has a useful note for anyone who buys the MP3s.

Follow @AkalaMusic on Twitter.