In an interview with Okay Africa, leading up to the release of his debut album The Lion Of Sudah, Grammy Award-winning Kenyan songster Bensoul, described how as a kid his mother used to rock him to sleep with the radio on, and if they turned off the music he would not sleep. Bensoul’s mother has undoubtedly had a profound influence on him eventually becoming an artist, and the artist dedicates the first song on his album to her. In the emotionally captivating song, which is titled Dreams, and features Wanavokali, Bensoul sings ‘When mama believed in me / On that day she made a king / Even when no one could see / She is a blessing / She’s my queen…’

An image of Kenyan artist Bensoul, who released his debut album this month. The 15-track album titled 'The Lion of Sudah' features several Kenyan artists such as Bien, Muthaka, Savara, Xenia Manasseh, and Fancy Fingers. Some of the songs in the album appear on the list of top Kenyan songs released in April 2023. | Image: Bensoul
Kenyan artist Bensoul released his debut album in April 2023. Some of the songs in the album appear on the list of WAKILISHA’s top Kenyan songs released in April 2023. | Image: Bensoul

This first song Dreams foreshadows how The Lion Of Sudah is Bensoul’s exploration of topics that normally might come out as trite, but with the aid of his unequivocal vocal and lyrical prowess, doesn’t. This 15-track album showcases Bensoul’s unexampled versatility as an artist by oddly enough, drawing a thin line between hedonistic blissful narrations and introspection of his existence.

The album starts with a strong collaboration featuring Kenyan group Wanavokali, and maintains the collaborative energy throughout. The Lion of Sudah features some of the best mainstream musicians working in the Kenyan music scene today. The follow-up track to Dreams, titled Row, features the Dholuo flavour King Okello Max and 1/3 of the H_art the Band trio Mordecai Mwini Kimeu a.k.a. Mordecai Dex. I write this album review in December 2023, 8 months after the album was released, and with the gift of hindsight, I can attest that Row has been on repeat for many music lovers since the album was released. It is a libidinous song and a playful feel-good track where each member of the talented trio of artists effortlessly summons their ‘A’ game.

Napepea, song number 3 is a song in which Bensoul flexes his songwriting muscles. The artist weaves through the language of love in such an effortless and rhythmic manner, you will be forgiven for assuming his is an easy job.  

Karibuni Kwa Mida ya 420

The fifth song in the album Mida ya 420 features Hornsphere, a music group composed of 4 horn players (a Horn Quartet). Mida ya 420 is an outing with Snoop Dogg, an ode to the cannabis culture of smoking marijuana at precisely the time 4:20 pm. ‘Karibuni kwa mida ya 420 / Kurudishia mwili asante na kumedi /Kama huna yako basi pigia pedi…’. The Hornsphere quartet introduces a jazz-inspired dimension to the composition, particularly notable towards the end of the song as they ride on a syncopated buzz while displaying stunning orchestration. The sixth song Legalization is a continuation of Mida ya 420’s cannabis theme, and features the popular reggae icon Ruzira Lavosti.

As a member of the record label Sol generation at the time of making The Lion of Sudah, it was a given that Bensoul would feature members of Sauti Sol in the album. The punchy seventh song Navutishwa features Bien, with the two singing over a Benga beat with an infectious rhumba rhythm and the ninth song My Boo taps the talents of Savara and Fancy Fingers.

In what seems like an attempt to stay true to his blueprint aesthetic, Bensoul also features RnB artists with whom he evidently possesses a profound artistic chemistry with. In the tenth song Chizi, he features Kenyan RnB songstress Xenia Manasseh whose incandescent voice coupled with the synchronicity she seems to have with Bensoul, makes the song one of the best tracks in the album. The eleventh song titled  Same Page, features the contemporary, indie, alternative RnB, and soul singer Muthaka. In Same Page, Bensoul and Muthaka refocus on the subject of love. Hatujachelewa, the 13th track features Tanzanian singer Jux whose blend of RnB, Bongo Flava and Afrobeats has resulted in tracks that more often than not become regulars on radio playlists. 

Other featured artists on this project include Nigerian hitmaker Bayanni in the song Dondosa, another feel-good track destined for success on the club DJs’ go-to songs. Also featuring on the album is Kenyan singer and producer AfroNautiq in the outro titled Miracles.

Album cover for Kenyan artist Bensoul's debut album titled 'The Lion of Sudah'. The album has 15 tracks and features several Kenyan artists such as Bien, Muthaka, Xenia Manasseh, Savara, and others. The album was released on April 20, 2023. | Image: Bensoul
Album cover for Kenyan artist Bensoul’s debut album titled ‘The Lion of Sudah’. The album has 15 tracks and features several Kenyan artists such as Bien, Muthaka, Xenia Manasseh, Savara, and others. The album was released on April 20, 2023. | Image: Bensoul

The main attraction  in The Lion Of Sudah is Bensoul’s versatility as an artist, and songwriter;  clearly visible through the diverse themes the Kenyan artist explores in the breath of the 15-track album. The songs Napepea, Somebody New and the interlude track Melody are nocturne songs, different from others such as Mida ya 420 and Legalization, which like the second to last song Viva La Vida are about the hedonistic inclinations both him personally and those in his environment have.

In the interview with Okay Africa, Bensoul describes the album as ‘one full of personal experiences derived from day-to-day life’. While the downside to this under normal circumstances would be the resulting project being light on grandiose ideas, in the case of The Lion of Sudah this exploration of daily personal experiences results in a fine showcase of a talented artist’s versatility. Eponymously titled after Bensoul’s own nickname Sudah, which was given to him by the H_art the Band trio, Bensoul’s debut album makes a compelling case for The Lion of Sudah being one of the best Kenyan music albums released in 2023.