Best new African music: May’s roundup
Every month, Wale Oloworekende covers the continent's most exciting releases and music news stories for THE FACE.
On his earliest songs, Nigerian singer Adekunle Gold seemed like the sort of guy who just couldn’t get a break. One popular Nigerian culture critic went as far as to call him “Nigerian music’s only loser”. The tag was not without merit. A lot of Gold’s pre-2019 songs cast him as the guy being rejected by a love interest, stuck in the friend zone, or seeking divine help to achieve a financial breakthrough. Fortunately, his 2020 album, AfroPop Vol. 1, explored themes of maturity and experimentation that saw him achieve critical acclaim, and commercial success.
This month’s column is led by Gold’s addictive new release, Burna Boy’s exhilarating new single and, elsewhere, Issam Harris’ flexible fusion of trap and Raï music from the Maghreb. Tap in.
Adekunle Gold – It Is What It Is
Last year’s AfroPop Vol. 1 marked Adekunle Gold’s evolution from the indie-folk leanings of his earlier works, like Gold and About 30. Bolstered by stunning electronic infusions, Afrobeats’ signature skittering drums and AG’s pristine writing, the project refreshed Gold’s sound and established him in the heart of Nigerian pop.
Carrying over from the insouciant arrogance of AfroPop Vol. 1, his new single, It is What It Is, sounds like a victory lap, as he basks in the euphoria of that landmark album and the second act of a very promising career. Over a mid-tempo beat, jointly produced by Kali and Blaise Beatz, he muses about ignoring naysayers and valuing his peace of mind more than ever before. “Keeping my distance,” he insists, “Some people are worse than pandemic.”
Burna Boy – Kilometre
Earlier this year, Burna Boy became the first Nigerian artist from the contemporary Afro-fusion wave to win a Grammy, his 2020 album Twice as Tall taking home Best World Music Album. On Kilometre, his first post-award release and his first single of 2021, the African Giant is on triumphant form, serving a blistering cocktail of dancehall and Afrobeats that underlines his credential as a standard bearer for music from the continent. Over Chopstix’s fast-paced beat, he dexterously switches cadence and takes pride in how far he’s come. “I don tey for the game, Shina Peters,” he rhymes, mischievously comparing his longevity with that of legendary Juju music icon Sir Shina Peters.
Olamide – Rock
It’s impossible to examine the worldwide explosion of Nigerian pop in the 2010s without encountering Olamide’s work. Music from Lagos has been culturally and geographically divided between the jarring realities of mainland Lagos and the city’s archipelago of wealthier islands. An upstart from the mainland, Olamide blurred those boundaries by popularising the mainland’s street-specific lingo and the slick sounds that have powered Nigerian pop for much of the last decade.
On his first single of 2021, Rock, Olamide’s on particularly smooth form, assuring a woman he finds irresistible that he’ll always be there for her. “Girl I just want make we chill like ice water,” he sings over Eskeez’s buttery, mid-tempo production.
Issam – Crystal
When Issam Harris discovered the music of Young Thug and other trap stalwarts around six years ago, he decided to develop his own spin on the sound, fusing the hard-hitting rap genre with the social consciousness of Raï music (a North African brand of folk music that rose in popularity around the 1920s). Issam’s songs offer a conceptual narrative of urban Morrocan culture, one that respects tradition, but is also conversant with current issues.
His debut album Crystal is performed primarily in Darija, a vernacular form of Arabic that’s spoken in Morocco, and is a particularly melodic take on trap. Across the record, Issam sings and raps about nightlife in Casablanca and Internet culture, often gargling his voice with AutoTune over spacey production.
Lavaud – King Vaud
The global popularity of Afrobeats and its offshoots has played a role in the spread of African sonic signifiers across the Black diaspora. Two years ago, London-based Mauritian singer Lavaud created a buzz with a feature on the remix of Reekado Banks’ hit track Rora. On King Vaud, Lavaud’s four-track debut project, she blends R&B with Afro-fusionist melodies and rhythms, working with Nigerian producer Tuzi on the titular project opener and reconnecting with Reekado Banks for Oh My, another low-flickering ballad.
Shekhinah – Trouble In Paradise
Four years ago, Durban singer Shekhinah released Rose’s Gold, a sweeping body of work that established her as one of Africa’s leading R&B exponents. Thematically, the project found the former music TV show star luxuriating in the warm embrace of love, affection and contentment, over echoey beats retro-fitted for her silky voice. On the follow-up, Trouble In Paradise, there’s an increased sense of foreboding, as the 26-year-old comes to terms with loss, heartbreak and insecurity over airy, neo-soul beats. “I’m miserable, I’m missing you,” she morosely admits on Miserable. Ouch.
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Do the UK fans have holes Burning in their wallets?
Headlining a show at London’s 20,000-capacity O2 arena has become a rite of passage for the biggest Afrobeats crossover stars. In 2018, Wizkid headlined and sold out his AfroRepublik show at the famous concert venue, swiftly followed by Davido in January 2019. After being deprived of live shows for so long, Burna Boy will headline a show at the O2 in August, as part of a welcome back series of concerts at the venue. The only problem? Standing tickets are priced at an eye-watering £110, forcing many of his UK fans to question the extent of their loyalty.
Fela’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snub
23 years after his death, Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s legacy still looms over the global music ecosystem. New generations are constantly discovering his intoxicating blend of jazz, funk and Yoruba/pidgin traditional music. In February, the Afrobeat pioneer was announced as one of the nominees for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not passing up a chance to honour Nigeria’s most iconic musician, fans and admirers of Fela campaigned for votes on the fan ballot, and the final count revealed that Fela finished second behind Tina Turner. Unfortunately, upon deliberation by an international voting body of artists, historians and living inductees, Fela missed out on a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, provoking many Nigerians and Fela fans to criticise the American institution for misleading them about the selection process.
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Davido – Back When
Long before he became one of the world’s biggest Afrobeats stars, Davido was a teenage rebel who dropped out of an American university in Alabama to pursue music. After eloping to London for a brief period at the turn of the 2010s, a deal with his billionaire businessman father was agreed, which involved Davido attending a private university two hours away from Lagos. From that vantage point, he built a career that has spawned uncountable hits. May 2021 marked the tenth anniversary of his active presence in the music industry and the song that put him on the map: Back When.
While club banger Dami Duro is the definitive song of the muddled, alcohol-fueled early rise of Davido, Back When was an earnest, catchy reflection of his life in real-time, as he celebrated being back on good terms with his father – and the financial leeway that entailed – over a groovy percussion instrumental produced by himself. Featuring legendary Nigerian rapper Naeto C, the song referenced the grass to grace troupe popular in Nigerian music, and its hook is a testament to all the slights Davido encountered when he dropped out and started pushing his music independently. “Back when I was broke yo/Nobody wanted to jonze yo/All the girls they tell me no no because I no get motor,” he sneeringly rhymed. Naeto C’s ice-cool verses added narrative to Davido’s singing and brought attention to the singer who would go on to define afrobeats over the next decade.
Read April’s African music roundup here.