“Where are you from, originally?” Denise Chaila mockingly asked on her 2019 debut EP ‘Duel Citizenship’, mimicking the racist questions she’s received as an Irish-Zambian person. On that release’s title track, the Limerick-based rapper, singer and poet deftly blended both cultures and celebrated language as a gift for sharing stories (“I could translate all of my Lenje stories / So that we could sing them as Gaeilge”).
Chaila’s 2020 debut mixtape ‘Go Bravely’ then widened her scope further; her carefully-woven lyrics taking centre-stage atop modest jazz-tinged piano and guitar hooks. The release later won Chaila the RTÉ Choice Music Prize – the first time a mixtape has emerged victorious.
It’s a format that Chaila has returned to again with the simply-titled ‘It’s A Mixtape’. Expanding on her musical horizons, Chaila explores a more varied palette of thumping minimal bass-stabs, warm horn arrangements and haunting, medieval-sounding melodies through a synthesised, futuristic lens. While the production feels cranked-up and bolder, its centrepiece ‘I A M’ is still smouldering and meditative, featuring the voices of friends and family from Ireland and around the world. ‘Energy’, which features MuRli (a fellow founder of Chaila’s label and collective Narolane), is another softer stand-out, built around warm keys and jazz trumpets with a sprinkling of harp.
Chaila often draws on regal imagery and a wealth of mythology in her lyrics. On ‘Might Be’ she collides the Greek god of wine-making, Dionysus, with Queen Medb, a figure in Irish mythology who represents intoxication and mead-drinking. Opener ‘061’ (borrowing its title from Limerick’s area code) proudly declares “I am not a queen, I’m a Prince,” while on closer ‘Return of the King’ the rapper cleverly invokes the words of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who once brandished a plucked chicken at Plato after he classified man as a featherless biped. “Or Artemis me, I’m only fowl when I’m floating,” Chaila puns, further referencing the Greek goddess of hunting and the Irish young-adult sci-fi series Artemis Fowl in a beat. “Freedom is potent, the future’s in focus.”
It all serves to prove Chaila’s dexterous lyricism, neatly linking threads between the present, ancient mythology and more recent historic events, such as Muhammad Ali’s 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman (“What they say to Ali?” she asks on ‘Might Be’, before quoting the crowd’s chants “Bomaye!”).
Even when it’s going full-throttle, ‘It’s A Mixtape’ has an inherent playfulness over the course of its five concise tracks. She might compare herself to Kanye on the closer, but by that point you’re already left with a keen sense of exactly who Denise Chaila is and what she stands for.
Release date: November 26
Release label: Narolane Records