Audio Mixer: Oliver Wright.
Recording information: Jazzworks Studio, Johannesburg, South Africa; Mali; Red Bull Studios, London; Strongroom Studios; The Library; www.hatchthestudio.com.
It's not unusual for noted actors to suddenly decide they have musical talent they want to reveal to the world, but Idris Elba was DJing in clubs and cutting hip-hop records before he gained fame for his work on the TV shows The Wire and Luther and in movies like Thor and Pacific Rim. For his first full-length album, Elba has chosen a project that honors others rather than putting the spotlight on himself. Elba played South African freedom fighter turned president Nelson Mandela in the 2013 film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and while he was working on the picture, he immersed himself in the many different flavors of South African music; as Elba explained in a press interview, "South Africa has numerous different tribes and each one has a musical expression, and each one has a very unique, different sound style." In addition to offering a sampler of the many avenues of South African music, Mi Mandela also pays homage to Nelson Mandela's life and legacy, as well as the struggles of Elba's father, who was born in Sierra Leone and moved to England in search of a better life. Mi Mandela attempts to cover a lot of thematic ground in 11 songs and 45 minutes, and unfortunately it feels a bit scattershot as the singing, rapping, and spoken word passages offer a diverse range of thoughts without cohering into a central philosophy that somehow covers it all. But Elba's desire to communicate a positive message is clear and commendable, even if the specifics aren't always clear, and as music, this is impressive stuff, from the passionate R&B flavors of "So Many People," the wiry guitars and rubbery bass of "Thank You for Freedom," the taut but slinky textures of "Tree," the dubwise landscapes of "Nothembi Jam," the spare but anthemic "Hold On," and "Mi Mandela," in which Elba raps with wit and conviction about the experience and responsibilities of playing the great leader. Recorded with a crew of British and South African musicians and featuring guest appearances from James Blake, Cody ChesnuTT, Mr. Hudson, Maverick Sabre, and members of Mumford & Sons as well as Phuzekhemisi and Nothembi Mkhwebane, Mi Mandela is rich, diverse, and satisfying, and if it sometimes packs more ideas into one package than it seems comfortable holding, this is a dynamic and often powerful thumbnail guide to the music of South Africa and the literal and figurative legacy of Nelson Mandela. It's an impressive piece of work, and the fact that Elba has refused to put himself at center stage on his own debut album makes Mi Mandela much more than some actor's vanity project. ~ Mark Deming