Subaru Boys: Final Heaven Review: Pushing African Alté to New Depths
Santino’s Subaru Boys: Final Heaven is a one-of-a-kind tidal soundscape. Once again, Cruel Santino – previously Santi - pushes the boundaries of African music by meshing different genres to create his own unique sound. Prior to the release, Santino asked his listeners not to “skip any tracks - just let it play and escape.” The effect is that of a videogame – an intended result by the artist who compared the creative process to game-making. The opening lyrics on the first track MATILDA (feat. Brazy) announce ‘super demon/super demon’ thus suggesting that we are about to experience supernatural sounds. The warning is accurate, the tracks each have their own personality taking the listener on a journey that feels like a game with different playing venues on each level. We are being let into Santino’s world and it is a neon whirlwind.
The game-like sounds feel familiar with WAR IN THE TRENCHES repeatedly using a pinging sound that is similar to the coin-collecting ping in Sonic the Hedgehog. The ambient sounds throughout the album imitate the sound of a PlayStation switching on, expertly capturing a shared experience of a generation that came of age to Mortal Kombat and Tekken – a new digital consciousness in Africa and an increasingly connected world.
Santino threads his creative style with personal experience –making the album sound like a sophisticated after-school project with patched sounds from voice notes, children’s voices, heavy synthetic beats, and quick-paced African drums. The album transports you to the early 2000s with dream-vibes, lazy beats reminiscent of early teenage sexuality, air-conditioned rooms, unsupervised pool parties, over-the-top emotional experiences, and stolen sips of warm alcohol as the power has gone off. An experience that many of us who grew up in Africa can relate to. Santino does not shy away from the things that inspire and influence him – the digital universe, romantic encounters and a Black identity that cuts across geographical boundaries.
Subaru Boys feels more authentic as it is not an attempt to create a new African sound for us to dance, mosh and vibe to - but is rather a foundational experiment that could easily develop into a more layered Santino sound. This is one of the most admirable practices an artist can take; constantly revisiting, reinventing, and adding to an idea until it is never done. On MERMAID AQUA – Santino shows that his sound does not belong to any borders, with the opening bossanova snare hinting to a more Brazilian sound before jolting us elsewhere with a chorus of children’s voices singing ‘hey cucaracha’ repeatedly and breathless lyrics in Pidgin.
Despite the album ushering in new frontiers, Santino returns to some of his core themes: love and heartbreak. The tinkling and beeping sounds throughout the album imitate a life-support machine making it clear to us - everything feels tender to Santino. Abstract lines such as ‘It’s fine, I get it/You don’t like seafood’ makes it feel as if we have just stumbled into an intimate conversation he is having with a love interest. On I TOLD GUS I’M DREAMING, he sings about his efforts in a chase of pursuit where ‘I couldn’t count the things I did to get you girl/I even lied to my demons’. Santino is the emotional and gloomy main character of this video game who is plagued by genius skill and nostalgia. The female host, air pilot-like, addresses the listeners as ‘sea creatures’ and informs us that we are reaching a destination titled ‘shell petal’. Whether we like it or not, we are following Santino in Wonderland, complete with the trippy experiences that come with it.
The project shows us once again that Santino’s absurd way with words will never fall short. His eccentric word combinations push us to reimagine language and meaning in a new digital age where visuals and ‘vibes’ trump meaning. The sonic underwater sound and oceanic themes introduce much-needed consistency into the 21-song album. At 59 minutes, Subaru Boys is longer than Santino’s debut album, Mandy and The Jungle making it more of a commitment for the listener but a rewarding one if you can heed his pledge and allow yourself to escape. As much as there is coherency in the theme there is also repetition, something that can be frustrating if you are looking for a chronological narrative. However, Santino never promises to follow any rules. Instead, songs like SWAGGER BACK (feat. WifiGAWD), give us twisted sounds such as laser pew-pews and rhythmic grunts reminiscent of a unique take on a lean, drill sound.
The visualisers are just as crucial as the music. Santino shows us that he is not just a singer-rapper but a visionary of intergalactic Black sound, story, and visuals. With the cartoon characters, Santino lets us into his head and reminds us again that he is beyond his physical form – a suggestion that maybe we too should consider what we are beyond bodies. When the characters do adopt a human form it is refreshing to see that they are dark-skinned and flawlessly dressed. An aesthetic that Santino is committed to with his own sharp, personal style and fashion endeavours. The other visuals are trippy, kaleidoscopic rollercoaster rides – a further invitation to let yourself go and surrender to Santino’s universal creation.
There is an otherworldly feel on Subaru Boys that is similar to his debut album Mandy and the Jungle, however on Subaru Boys Santino flexes the freedom of his success by exploring his sound and what he wants to do with it. This feels more authentic and ambitious than Mandy which was an impressive album because of how well he complemented other artists’ sounds with unparalleled results. On Subaru Boys Santino sets the pace and makes his collaborators meet him where he is. These are heavy hitters, from Skepta to Koffee – each with their own distinct sounds but with Santino they adapt and adopt a more alté sound contrary to their own styles. When this is already the artist’s style - such as the Amaarae feature on BORN AGAIN - there is a unity in pace. Stronger songs such as HEATING ROCKS also show the power of collaboration with production from Le Man who also produced the similar instrumentally forward track Murvlana on Mandy and The Jungle; one of the strongest tracks outside of the memorable crowd-pleasers Sparky and Raw Dinner. The features are the less exciting aspect of Subaru Boys, but they show that the genre of alté is fast-evolving, and everyone wants to be a part of it.
As Black history and representation continue to dominate our discussions on diversity and justice, Santino’s album shows us that music can bring imagination into our ideas of liberation. In one of his earliest interviews, Santino pledged that he “would like to make the music I daydream to”. Indeed, he succeeds in this. In crafting a non-verbal language between consciousness, emotions and memory, Subaru Boys synth afro-pop dreamscape marks out new territory of a black future in a digital and physical space where Black people are the main characters. For that alone, the album is worth switching off distractions, letting it play and escaping.