It's difficult to believe that seven years have elapsed between Femi Anikulapo Kuti's Fight to Win and Day by Day. Positive Force, his 13-piece backing band, is tighter than ever. Kuti's confidence as a bandleader has grown exponentially. He no longer feels the need to either enshrine his father's music in nostalgic reconstructions of it, nor does he need to indulge American hip-hop and funk or European electronica the way he once did. That said, Kuti still plays Afro-beat, but he puts his unique stamp on the music of his father. Here, slower burning funk sits side by side with African polyrhythmic folk forms; dubby reggae sidles up to African soul and Afro-beat. Check the title track, where in waltz tempo a rub bassline meets a full chorale of voices on a repetitive refrain that becomes a chant. There is real rage here, but it is expressed as both sorrow and determined struggle. The weave of hand drums, organs, and voices in "Demo Crazy" adds elements of funky free jazz in the horn section, sounding like a taut African version of the Hugh Masekela big band next to trippy psychedelic soul. Kuti's voice is more disciplined this time out; he's more confident as a singer. He communicates more of the weighty emotion in his lyrics. Check his vocal as it plies against a guest guitar spot by Keziah Jones on "Dem Funny." Layers of melodic organ, hand drums, and a double drum kit work are woven in. But Kuti takes it all into his voice, resonating against the guitar with his chorale. The wah-wah guitars and soulful B-3 and Afro-funky breaks on "Tension Grip Africa" sound like the early Santana directed by Quincy Jones backing Isaac Hayes. This is slamming, sexy, political music without a filter. The album's centerpiece is "You Better Ask Yourself." It begins with a percolating bassline, layers of subtle percussion, a spacy Fender Rhodes piano (courtesy Patrick Goraguer), and a muted trumpet. The pace of the tune is hypnotic, steady, and midtempo. But soon the wah-wah guitars, the layers of B-3 and Wurlitzer organ (à la Santana's Caravanserai) come floating in, and are underscored by the enormous horn section playing sparsely in a polished Afro-beat style. Kuti's vocal reports on the richness and thievery of his continent's natural resources resulting in the poverty of its people. He highlights contradiction, colonialist and corporate practices with poignant, unflinching honesty, all the while keeping it soulful and emotionally connected without once letting his control over the music or lyrics slip. The killer futuristic funk of "One Two" is followed with a "Planet Rock"-style vocoder bit embedded with vibes inside the rest of the instrumentation. Day by Day is Femi's watermark record. It took four studio albums -- despite the fact that both Shoki Shoki and Fight to Win were winners in their own rights -- to completely come into his own and out from under the looming, majestic shadow of Fela, but he's done so. He's come into his own carrying on the tradition of Afro-beat, but putting his own beautiful signature on it as its original heir. This is Femi's moment; checking this set out will reward anybody remotely interested in modern African music. Stone killer.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek