The last time we had a body of work from London-hailing rapper Akala was in 2010 when he released Doublethink, a sonically experimental album marrying a hip-hop flavour with elements of rock where he firmly set the tone of his musical direction with a careful mix of social commentary and the challenging of mainstream norms with intricate wordplay, information and story telling.

Fast forward two years and the emcee is back with Knowledge Is Power Vol. 1, a follow-up in the form of a 14-track mixtape. Akala’s previous projects — in addition to his various freestyles, shows all over the globe and online presence — have garnered him a strong and loyal fan base who have waited for this latest musical offering with great anticipation.

The tape kicks off with “Fire In The Booth,” which gives us a history lesson fused with witty analogies and showcases Akala’s confident live performance, as the song is a freestyle recorded for BBC DJ Charlie Sloth‘s hip-hop show. For listeners not familiar with what Akala stands for, this might be an overbearing introduction and the double time delivery may be difficult to keep up with.

Keeping the momentum up and continuing on the theme of knowledge is “Educated Tug Shit,” the first of four features from lesser-known, fellow socially aware rapper English Frank. With its dramatic, violin-led beat, the track is an aggressive and gritty record challenging the listener to re-think their definition of a thug — reinforcing the thought-provoking rhetoric that another thread that runs through the entire tape.

Knowledge Is Power brings to life the transition Akala experienced between Doublethink and now, as well as his constantly-developing opinions and observations. This applies not only to society, though; the main differences here are the personal touches peppered throughout where he has connected that development to his own life.

On the melancholy “Absolute Power,” with its repetitive “absolute power corrupts absolutely / absolute powerlessness does the same” chorus and an equally-repetitive orchestral arrangement, we get the first taste of Akala’s more emotional side as he speaks of his frustrations with power structures in society.

As an interesting pick, Akala chose “The Message,” featuring london singer vocalist Selah, as the tape’s first official single. Talking solemnly about a subject seemingly close to his heart — a male’s role in society and its often negative effects on the family — Selah’s rousing delivery in the chorus adds to the power of an already emotive and stimulating track.

Articulating his feelings on the state of hip-hop in a satirical fashion over a grime beat by Ripperman, Akala switches up the mood in “Who’s The Gangsta,” which samples Dizzee and Wiley‘s 2003 collaboration “2 Far.” Another unexpected standout track is the cocky “I’m So Cool,” where he flips it and steps into the role of a “typical” rapper by bragging about his achievements, really adding character to a “conscious” tape.

Another standout is the Roberta Flack-sampling “Behind My Painted Smile,” where Akala and longtime collaborator Lowkey expose their vulnerabilities behind the façade of being a successful rapper. The last verse, where they exchange heartfelt metaphors, is another welcome insight into Akala’s sensitive side.

Knowledge Is Power keeps it light on features, with only the aforementioned and underrated lyricists like Durrty Goodz and Jaja Soze making appearances. With production taken care of by D’Explicit, Last Resort, Lavar, ShabanglBeatz and Engine Earz, there’s a comfortable mix of soulful beats and harder sounds.

Knowledge Is Power is the perfect title, as this is a somewhat philosophical and well thought-out project that encourages the listener to think. Overall this is a mature body of work, reflective of a rapper who is confident and educated and not afraid to show it.

Akala – Knowledge Is Power Vol. 1
Released: May 28, 2012
Label: Illastate Records
Buy: iTunes GB / Amazon.co.uk / Mamstore.co.uk