Rowlene has steadily been one of the most pivotal voices of the current R&B renaissance in the South Africa. Her debut album 11:11 is a richly diverse release sonically, with a thematic centre of romance and relationships, albeit in different contexts.
For a long time, the artist was known mainly for a bevy of features she has done with some of the foremost rap stars in the industry. Most notably, she appeared on Nasty C‘s chart-topping singles “Phases”(2016) and “SMA” (2018), as well as A-Reece‘s “Pride” (2017) and Flame’s “Between Me & You” (2017). She also has a placement on the soundtrack of the South African 2020 Netflix original series, Blood & Water, with the song “I Need You” alongside Nasty C.
11:11 primarily finds Rowlene caught between asserting herself as someone who won’t chase unwilling romantic partners and also painstakingly explaining herself to romantic partners on how she should be treated.
Along with her stellar feature work, a slew of singles and a few EPs under her belt (The Evolution of a Robot 1 & 2), anticipation for Rowlene’s official debut was heightened by her signing to frequent collaborator, Nasty C’s Tall Racks Records who started teasing the album a long time before its release.
Talking about the album in her press release, she reveals, “I feel the music should speak for itself. It took me so long to drop, we have been announcing for the last year and a half and now we are finally here.”
On the album’s lead single, the electro-esque ballad “Stop” that draws from techno and dub-step, she sings, “I’ma let you finish, but I only got a minute/ I’ve been givin’ you my cellphone charger now, that’s gonna stop/ I know that you got it, used to taking from me, when you stole an empty throne involved me, no, it’s gotta stop.”
She says about the song, “‘Stop’ is about understanding one’s purpose and role, and how indispensable you may be, using a cellphone charger as a metaphor of reference. I’m tired of being a power source, and I’m left empty and seeing how it affects me. You have to understand your self-worth and act on it. You’re your own biggest resource. The universe will return the frequencies you send out.”
“Even” immediately follows almost as though the yin to its predecessor’s yang. It’s a slower ballad that finds Rowlene dejected, lamenting a heartbreak in the hands of a lover who is simply not enough. She sings, “I’m not in a position of holding on, but you cling to me/ And I keep praying till I find the one/ It’s plain to see, that sometimes when love ain’t enough, and this equation it ain’t adding up, we should walk away, while we still got our dignity.” For the chorus, she interpolates lyrics from “Breakeven” by The Script.
Stop Rowlene feat. Nasty C (Official Music Video)
The rest of the album plays out in this two-sidedness, where in some instances, she is feisty, denouncing any form of affectionate, deep and meaningful love, and opting for more thrilling, playful and fleeting affairs, as she does on “Danger”. Yet on the other hand, she is livid at the revelation that her lover has cheated on her, as is the case on the scorned-woman anthemic “Creeping”.
Rowlene’s treatment of these subjects reveals a duality that’s common in everyday relationships.
Most people who adopt a nonchalant approach to relationships, focusing on non-attachment and casual engagements, do so almost as a response to either the disappointment that came from the times they were deeply in love, or from feeling like they are not valued as meaningfully as they would have liked to be. This is shown on “Signs”, where she bemoans a failed relationship that fails due to a lack of direction, singing “I’m wide open, but still foldin’/ I’m sure you’re different to them others, you got pure intention, my hope’s in, but I’m folding/ I just can’t follow your direction.”
She then manages to capture the reactionary, consequent free-spiritedness and faux-confidence of those let down by love, when they triumphantly declare the freedom and control they have usurped in viewing relationships only as recreational. “You on You” illustrates this, as she sings, “If loving you was a crime, it’s safe to say I did my timе, you set me on fire and watched me turn to grey, you pushed me to the wire then begged for me to stay… please tell me what you’d do, if you were me and I were you? Would you like if I did a you on you?”
11:11 affords Rowlene’s artistic range and prowess to shine through in all its splendour. Her distinctive soprano, which is often spectral, is a marvel to listen to. On “Piece of Heaven”, she hits high notes in a poised stride, showcasing a seasoned vocalist at work. On the dusky “Sunday Morning”, her and talented collaborator, Manana, dip into variations of low register, as they ruminate on healing a broken heart, surmising that the heartache gets better on a Sunday morning. “Hypnotise”, with Nonso Amadi lies on a seductive cavalcade of gauzy instruments, evoking an exciting, new summer romance.
The overall sound-bed of the album is a combination of trap soul, R&B ballads and pop-infused melodies, crafted by a variety of producers such as Noble Production, Fermin Suero, Select Play, Lastee, Tellaman, Zoocci Coke Dope, David Balshaw, Bubele Booi and Ndumiso Manana, among others. Rowlene has managed to craft a tour de force which will go down as one of these year’s best releases.