My first introduction to Irish/Zambian hip-hop artist Denise Chaila was a captivating live performance of the title track from debut EP Duel Citizenship. A superbly crafted rebuke of the casual racism that exists not just in Ireland, but around the world, it was clear from the sheer force of energy in this short piece that Chaila intends to challenge and inspire. Far from a one-hit wonder, Chaila followed up her debut release with the full-length Go Bravely, which went on to become the first mixtape to win the RTÉ Choice Music Prize Album of the Year. Two releases in, Chaila was setting the bar high. November 2021 saw the release of the five-track It’s A Mixtape, with high expectations given the sheer quality of releases up to this point.
It’s A Mixtape shows a different side to Chaila’s artistry, with subtle changes in style and feel to both Duel Citizenship and Go Bravely. Opener “061”, a reference to the area code of Limerick, where Chaila is based, seems like a perfect opener for a live set. High energy and littered with intricate wordplay, “061” highlights Chaila’s self-belief and confidence. The eerie synth perfectly complements the track, with things kept interesting musically with constantly changing beats and electronics. “Might Be” slows things down a little, with the gentle flow leaving much room for Chaila’s artistry. ‘Just ’cause I’m nice don’t mean that I’m not designed to rain hell on anything that comes for my people, my family, my dreams, my purpose, my history, my genome’ comes the lyric, summing up both the artist and the music succinctly.
Whilst the opening two tracks are peppered with phrases or lines that challenge the listener to step back and look at themselves, it is the powerful “I A M” that steals the show lyrically on It’s A Mixtape. Over ethereal backing, the message is clear – ‘All of my heart is worthy/Nobody else has the right to tell my story‘. The track with the least backing, for me, remains the most hard-hitting, even if the track that follows tries to steal its thunder. “Energy”, at first, feels like an instant crowd-pleaser. Big production, brass leading the way, and energetic delivery all point to the track being a radio-friendly single. That is, until the beat drops to almost nothing, allowing Chaila to deliver another passage of inspiration, citing influential writers, musicians, and politicians (yeah, there are a handful of good ones) amongst others. It is another moment, in the growing list of this particular artist, where the audience is forced to open their ears and take in a message.
It’s A Mixtape concludes with the wonderfully titled and assumedly Lord of the Rings-inspired “Return of the King” (coupled with an earlier reference to the Riders of Rohan). If you wanted a quick introduction to Denise Chaila, this would be as good a place as any to start. The beat here is wonderfully put together, driving the track when needed and knowing exactly where to drop out to give space. ‘Your transphobia is whack/Your homophobia is whack‘ Chaila rasps, a reminder, if it is needed, to call out bigotry anywhere it is seen. Despite comparing herself to Kanye West, it is clear that Chaila’s star continues to burn off its own energy.
Chaila is an artist who continues to grow with each release. There may be little references and nods to other artists throughout the work, but Denise Chaila is an artist intent on paving their own path, with their own tools. All releases thus far have been something more than music. Every bar, every sound, every word feels like it has been carefully planned and put there for a reason, either to deliver a message, or set up the delivery of a message. If you haven’t yet heard Denise Chaila, it’s time to set aside twenty minutes of your day to take in It’s A Mixtape.