If this were a normal summer in the Triangle, the cookout and the club would be ruled by “Mek Mi Anxious,” the new single M8alla dropped July 3. A jubilant slice of R&B full of ‘90s hip-hop footnotes and detailed production, it finds Mballa Mendouga getting butterflies about a crush at a party—the sort of anxiety most of us would gladly trade our present kind for.

But this only strengthens the song’s summer-jam status, which usually involves a heady quotient of nostalgia. “Mek Mi Anxious,” a bridge between Mendouga’s debut album and the record she’s working on now, does tell us where she’s been. But it also points to where one of the Triangle’s top rising artists is going. 

Patrick Phelps-McKeown, who DJs and produces electronic music as Treee City, laid down the track that would become “Mek Mi Anxious” around 2013. He’d been making a lot of fast, aggressive techno, and he wanted to do something fun with major chords for a change. African and Latin sounds were having a moment in electronic music, from the tropical house craze to The xx and Justin freaking Bieber. 

But the breezy marimba melody Phelps-McKeown built in Ableton insisted on feeling more like an instrumental than a song until Mendouga, whose music blends Afro-Caribbean influences into trap and throwback hip-hop, came along. 

“I kept adding layers, but none of them were really a top line,” he says. “When I saw Mballa’s tweet, it felt like the missing piece. I think we got lucky—that was the first thing I sent her.” 

Mendouga has a knack for tweeting for beats and getting blessed by producers named Patrick. The first time she did so, the Raleigh hip-hop pro Pat Junior reached out, resulting in the single and video “Illegal.” The outlaw anthem anchored her 2018 debut album, Never Leave Quietly, and landed her on a big stage at the Hopscotch Music Festival. 

The second time, her Twitter fishing reeled in Phelps-McKeown, who jokes that next time, maybe she’ll get a beat from 9th Wonder (birth name: Patrick Douthit). 

Mendouga wrote “Mek Mi Anxious” off the track Phelps-McKeown sent, kicking off a much deeper collaboration than just buying a beat off the internet. 

“I was super impressed by how rhythmic it was,” Mendouga says. “It just felt like me. I wanted to have something fun after ‘Illegal,’ a very heavy song that pushed an image of me as this anthemic songwriter for dark times. I’m like, ‘No, I’m so much more than that; I have fun, too.’ This is the lane I wanted to go in, so it was easy to write on it.”

“Illegal,” written while Mendouga was at UNC, was about being an undocumented immigrant for a few years. After her Cameroonian family was evacuated from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where her father was an ambassador, she was born in Paris in 1991, where she spent her toddler years. She grew up in Washington, D.C., before coming to Chapel Hill in 2009.

“Mek Mi Anxious” took shape in several long sessions at Durham’s Playground Studios with sound engineer Chaka Harley. The first step was whittling it down from its original five-minute length for maximum pop punch, compressing a world’s worth of detail in three perfect minutes.

“There’s so much work we did to create the atmosphere around the song, the background noise, trying to give it kind of a story feel,” Mendouga says. “Little giggles, all the things that make it fun and summery on top of the production and songwriting.”

They started thinking about the song in cinematic terms, which resulted in the musical equivalent of diegetic sounds in a film—not just singing about a party but taking you there. Before the last chorus, you can hear a door opening and a few footsteps, as if Mendouga were stepping out to collect herself.

“If I’m feeling anxious about a guy at a party, I’ll go grab a drink,” she says. “I’ll leave the party and go into a room and calm down, then come back. We were trying to recreate that feeling of moving around.” 

They made this concrete-music touch in the soundstage at Playground. With a handheld recorder, Phelps-McKeown captured the click of Mendouga’s steps on the tile floor, the door of the studio opening, and even the security-system beep, then filtered it all in ProTools to make it sound like it was coming from another room.

Mendouga gave us a phone video capturing the moment:

YouTube video

The lyrics and melodies are just as allusive and detailed. Bad Boy is Mendouga’s favorite label ever, and her first concert was Ruff Ryders when she was nine years old. A couple of lines on “Mek Mi Anxious” riff on the iconic Diana Ross sample from Biggie’s hit “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Another cites DMX’s “Get It on the Floor,” while still another is a quote Lil’ Kim cribbed from dancehall legend Mad Cobra. 

“There’s so much Mase and Diddy flavor in there. I like to dig in crates in general,” Mendouga says. “I also grew up on ‘90s dancehall, the Shabba Ranks era, where often they’ll have a woman doing a prominent part, and that’s a feel I wanted to bring in.”

“Mek Mi Anxious” also features Mendouga’s first rap verse on her own song, a path she may or may not explore on the new record she’s working on with Alec Lomami, which she hopes to drop next year. She’s all about pushing her frontiers and showing different sides of herself. She’s looking for beats she has room to put her personal stamp on, like with Treee, and she’s writing a song in French for the first time. 

“I’m testing my abilities in completely different ways,” she says. “My quote-unquote brand is to continue to grow into a more authentic person, and music helps me remember all the things about me that are tucked away somewhere because I’m here in Raleigh.”

Follow Interim Editor in Chief Brian Howe on Twitter or send an email to bhowe@indyweek.com

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.