Maanu & Talal

Maanu and Talal Qureshi recently put out a pair of recordings.

Talal is an artist’s producer. In that his reputation as an electronic musician is so established in the community of Pakistani musicians that it seems many more will be ready to work with him than might be true the other way round. Maanu himself has talked of how Talal scouted him, and waited for Maanu to get good before finally working with him on a song for Maanu’s debut album, Yain City. In the end, Talal also provided Maanu a live break – inviting him to share Lahore Music Meet’s main stage to perform their song Pak Sar Zameen. Given this context, this pair of recordings represents a notable arc in the careers of both musicians.

Yain City established Maanu as a consistent, novel and relatable voice of Pakistani hip hop. The early days of rap in Pakistan began with Punjabi, and it was lazily argued that Punjabi lends itself more to rap than Urdu. I myself have made the argument that there might be linguistic features, such as the sharp consonants and short vowels that makes Punjabi a good match for rap. But looking back, there might be other reasons this lazy thinking persisted. Punjabi is unfairly ostracized as more crass and less respectable than Urdu, for reasons that ultimately boil down to bias and dogma. Rap sources from black roots, and receives many of the stereotypes that black populations receive generally. The rise of Urdu hip hop in recent years is interesting because it subverts these tropes. In particular, Maanu’s music stands out because he is from Lahore. The city is a prominent theme in Maanu’s first album. It is, after all, the Yain City. While Maanu continues to rap in Urdu, his Punjabi accented delivery and idiom comes through in his music, giving it a different feel than the Karachi rap scenes built around the Young Stunners and the Baloch hip hop community.

In the short six months post Yain City, Maanu has worked with Rozeo, Hasan Raheem, recorded for the PSL, and self-produced a more pop sounding single. Early in his career, Maanu’s style has taken enough shape to hold up for two consecutive recordings with Talal. The exciting thing is that given Maanu’s roots as a more acoustic guitar songwriter, there is room and suggestion still that his style may expand further.

While Maanu’s decision to work with Talal is a cementing of his stature in the industry, Talal’s decision to do so shows an opening up to the audience that was less visible in Talal’s previous work. At his best, Talal’s music sounds so perfectly constructed that it is hard to imagine the song going any other way. This is the hallmark of exceptional musicians, and perhaps why so many musicians look up to Talal.

It was Talal’s misfortune that he began peaking in a less known era of Pakistani pop. The decade between 2010 and 2020 was scarred by the dismantling of music channels and record labels, rendering traditional distribution channels muted. Social media, which offered artists a way to reach audiences directly without traditional media infrastructure, was subject to frequent bans and harmful policymaking from the Pakistani government, as a result of which artists rising in that timeframe got less than they deserved.

Talal continued recording during this time, and his songs became more introspective. Which is to say that in a market already somewhat new to the electronic music Talal was producing, he made harder to access music. Talal was selling heroin in a market with no gateway drugs. In recent years, Talal has worked with an impressive array of young musicians, producing broadly and consistently. His personal presence in music videos, and in these recordings a snippet of his untreated voice do not feel like coincidences, but conscious attempts to make his music more accessible. If this is in fact the shift Talal is making, it is extremely welcome. Because as far as artistic strategies go, what can be more endearing than empathy for an audience?