In January 2020, Burna Boy’s album African Giant narrowly missed out on a Grammy. Burna’s nomination (for the ‘Best World Music Album’ category) came after a decade when Afrobeats – the catchall term used to refer to popular music from West Africa – rose to global ubiquity thanks to its irresistible rhythm and a passionate wave of African and diasporic youth culture. African Giant’s Grammy snub inspired conversations about global pop arbiters’ (mis)understanding of contemporary African music and presented questions about how sonics from the sub-region could be appropriately celebrated in an era when African artists are reaching international audiences. Some struggled to see where Afrobeats would go from there.
One year later, Afrobeats is, arguably, in a stronger position than ever.
Refreshed by the ennui of lockdown, in 2020 Burna Boy released his follow up album Twice as Tall (and scored another Grammy nom). Wizkid continued to tinker with the texture of Afrobeats on Made In Lagos and Tiwa Savage made an album that attempted to capture the multiplicity of the women of Africa on Celia. Away from the mainstream, Amaarae’s The Angel You Don’t Know mixtape weaved music styles from America, Britain and Ghana into her own eccentric afro-fusion sound. The improvisations that allow all these nuances have continued into 2021: CKay’s breezy, ambient take on Afrobeats has morphed into broader form on his Boyfriend EP; drill music has found new homes in eastern Nigeria and south Ghana; and rising artists like Bella Shmurda, Zinoleesky and Mohbad are crafting their own distinctive styles.
This is Afrobeats 2.0. The music is hotter than ever. Here’s a breakdown of some of 2021’s highlights so far.
Teni – For You ft. Davido
With her vibrant fashion sense and infectious melodies, for the last few years, Teni Makanaki has merged the bright lights of mainstream appeal with validation on the streets, proving herself to be one of Nigeria’s most well-rounded musicians. For You, taken from Teni’s soon-to-be-released debut album, WONDALAND, sees Teni incorporate Pidgin and Yoruba into her lyrics, expressing her undying passion for her love interest over Pheelz’s bouncy beat before Davido comes in to add gravitas and star power.
Joeboy – Show Me
Almost two years after breaking through with his track Baby, Joeboy’s stunning debut album, Somewhere Between Beauty and Magic, has arrived. The project dives deep into the themes of love and attraction, demonstrating a fuller sound than what we heard on his comparatively brief 2019 EP Love and Light. “Tell me that you love me and I go dey okay,” he sings on the chorus of one of the album’s many highlights, Show Me, breaking into the type of heart-warming plea that’s become his signature.
YKB – Dey Your Dey ft. Zlatan
The economic realities of living during a pandemic will not allow the Lagos-based musician YKB to do unpaid collaborations, and this was the premise of his viral single, OSHOFREE. Atop Zolo’s jaunty production, the singer transformed a New Year message into a denunciation against being taken for granted and those asking to pay for his musical talent with exposure.
The same impulses that birthed OSHOFREE have inspired its follow-up, Dey Your Dey. YKB’s bubbly singing is at odds with the serious message of the song, managing to slide a warning like “don’t let them take you for a fool” into a pretty melody. The track features Zanku pioneer Zlatan, who accessorises the song with high-octane ad-libs before delivering a reflective verse about betrayal from people he’d consider friends, interspersing the biblical story of Judas’ treachery into an interlude to close things out. So much of the praise for Afrobeats comes down to the inventive manner words are cooed or slurred by singers to give new essence to them, and the way YKB whispers “hediot” at the end of Dey Your Dey suggests that he could be next in the line of Afrobeats’ great provocateurs.
Yung L – Police & Thief
Four years after his debut album, Better Late Than Ever, Afro-dancehall act Yung L opened 2021 with the best work of his career. The Port Harcourt-born artiste has had to be patient for his moment in the sun, and his new album Yaadman Kingsize is a deserving body of work. Lyrically the album manages to map hedonism, police brutality in Nigeria, and divinity without being stringent with details. Yung L’s sombre voice cuts through it all melodiously. On one of the album’s more mellow tracks, Police & Thief (which references Junior Murvin’s 1976 reggae classic of the same name) he’s at his sobering best. Yung L can’t tell the difference between police officers and thieves because their methods are too similar, and as the #EndSARS protests proved, he’s not wide off the mark.
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Cuppy and Zlatan’s friendship melts
In 2019, the DJ and social media personality Cuppy dropped her Zlatan collaboration Gelato, a successful street-hop single inspired by a clip of her enjoying the frozen dessert in Italy. All seemed well between her Zlatan, until the beginning of this year, when, Cuppy tweeted that Zlatan had blocked her on WhatsApp and Instagram without any explanation. Bizarrely, in an interview weeks after, Zlatan claimed he didn’t know anybody named Cuppy, without further explanation. However, the industry figure Israel DMW (who is a close aide of Davido) and Zlatan claimed that Cuppy didn’t pay Zlatan for Gelato and that she had invited him to perform at a fundraising event without taking care of his travel logistics. A few days later, Cuppy announced that she would be suing Israel. The messy fallout has inspired memes about Zlatan, who is famous for his bars about street-savviness, being outwitted by Cuppy, a billionaire’s daughter.
A new Mavin
Due to the cost of recording and promoting, lack of institutional support or industry initiatives and various infrastructural snags, music remains a fanciful dream for many young Africans, and it’s often a long road towards an artist’s first taste of success. The 18-year-old Ayra Starr, however, already seems destined for a fruitful career, having signed to Mavin Records – one of Africa’s biggest labels – last year. In January, the Benin-born 18-year-old dropped her first EP with Mavin, channelling angst and bravado with her lilting voice on the impressive five-track collection.
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Wizkid – Pakurumo
Speaking of teenage pop stars, the emergence of Wizkid at the start of the 2010s was a watershed moment for Afrobeats. The then-fresh-faced wunderkind possessed a wonderful mix of inventive songwriting and pop magnetism that instantly freshened the pool of pop talents in Nigeria at a time when the country’s youth were still primarily obsessed with American rap and R&B. Wiz’s first single, Holla at your Boy, blew up over the radio and established him as a talent to watch out for.
Taken from his debut album Superstar, Pakurumo showed a fresh side to Wizkid’s music. Clearly influenced by the praise-singing and shuddering melodies of Fuji music – a deeply spiritual Nigerian genre associated with Islam – the song marked a creative breakthrough for the Wiz, with him putting a contemporary twist on traditional sounds. The song took off, getting played everywhere from hood link-ups in Nigeria to hall parties in London. To this day, Pakurumo is now a key reference point in the story of Afrobeats.