Around this time last year, Tems released her debut EP, For Broken Ears. A collection of swirly R&B cuts spiced with Nigerian and Caribbean references, the project came off the back of a two-year stretch that saw her move from being an upstart singer to the avatar of a post-alté artistic evolution.
The 26-year-old’s rise since then has been even more impressive. She featured on Essence, the standout track from Wizkid’s 2020 album Made In Lagos, which has achieved commercial success in the US this year in part thanks to a hotly-debated Justin Bieber remix. This ultimately led to Tems appearing on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album, while she also counts the likes of Adele and Rihanna as fans.
So this month’s column is led, of course, by Tems’ reflective new EP and also spotlights a South-meets-West collaboration between Focalistic and Stonebwoy, as well as an instrumental album by kora master, Ballaké Sissoko.
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Tems – If Orange Was A Place EP
Three years ago, Tems quit her job as a digital marketer to pursue a career in music. Since then, she has emerged as one of the most important voices in the current Afropop landscape. Last month, she cracked the US Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, thanks to her contribution to Wizkid’s summertime hit, Essence. One week after the song peaked at number 13, a billboard in Lagos confirmed that Tems would be making an appearance on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album.
Across Tems’ new project, If Orange Was A Place, her voice remains as enchanting as ever, as she glides smoothly over polished R&B instrumentals with her distinct cadence on songs like Avoid Things and Vibe Out. Found, a smooth collaboration with American R&B artist Brent Faiyaz, is the project’s sole feature, seeing the duo unite to memorialise the unraveling of a romance.
Check out the full EP here.
Stonebwoy and Focalistic – ARIBA
Earlier in 2021, South African rapper Focalistic caught a cross-continental hit with his Davido and Vigro Deep-featuring remix of Ke Star, a standout track from his 2020 amapiano-influenced album Sghubu Ses Excellent. In the months since, Focalistic’s profile has blown up, leading to performances at a handful of UK music festivals.
For his latest continental collaboration, Focalistic teams up with Ghanaian dancehall legend Stonebwoy. Setting the pace with his famous tagline “Ase Trap Ke Pina Tsa Ko Kasi”, ARIBA is a joyful synthesis of both artists’ sonic influences. The song’s lively instrumental is adorned by a vibrant piano riff and amapiano’s signature log drums. Eschewing his typically furious flow, Stonebwoy’s verses on ARIBA are tender, as he admires the physical qualities of a love interest while couching his message in a wider theme of African musical solidarity.
Ballaké Sissoko – A Touma
Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko is no stranger to adversity. Born into the jeli class, he was just 13 when he took his father’s place in the Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali, a national orchestra set up by the country’s first president, Modibo Keita. Last year, after returning from a US tour with his group 3MA, Sissoko discovered that his kora – a deeply significant string instrument used across west Africa – was broken beyond repair, presumably by US customs officials.
Motivated by his loss and a groundswell of goodwill, Sissoko released Djourou in April, collaborating with national hero Salif Keita and multi-instrumentalist Sona Jobarteh, amongst others, across the album’s nine tracks. Sissoko’s latest project, A Touma, is Djourou’s spiritual companion, exchanging the former’s open-ended feel for a more meditative outlook. Recorded in Belgium in just one afternoon, A Touma captures the icon at his prosaic best, spinning elegant pieces that are enlivened by his light touch and scintillating notes. These eight compositions are simple, but they evoke a myriad of emotions rooted in the griot tradition.
Listen to the entire album here.
Little Simz ft. Obongjayar – Point and Kill
Late last month, close to the release of her fourth album, Sometimes I Might Be an Introvert, Little Simz headed to Lagos with genre-bending singer Obongjayar to shoot the video for their collaboration, Point and Kill. The groovy song, which is one of the highlights of SIMBI, is a point of convergence for the UK-based artists, who have been exploring their Nigerian identities in imaginative ways throughout their careers. Point and Kill opens with Obongjayar’s elastic voice singing about freedom. “I do as I like/I no watch face/I no fear nobody,” the singer nimbly asserts over Inflo’s trancey instrumental, before Little Simz joins him to rap about prosperity for her and her loved ones, as well as giving a pointed reference to police brutality in the video’s closing stage. As we head towards the one-year anniversary of the momentous #EndSARS protests, it’s a poignant statement.
Cheque – Rockstar
Superboy Cheque is a vanguard of African music’s post-genre generation. The Nigerian artist is as comfortable dissecting pain and angst over melodious trap beats as he is starting parties via sweltering Afropop bangers. Last year’s Razor was an introduction to his cutting-edge sound, housing his breakout song Zoom. This month, Cheque delivered his debut album, Bravo, a full-on immersion into his genre-meshing world led by Rockstar, a pithy confessional, beclouded by a sense of alienation. “I’m a fucking rockstar, so don’t treat me like I’m nothing,” he sings with a chip on his shoulder over a mid-tempo instrumental.
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CKay's meteoric success
More than two years after releasing love nwantinti (ah ah ah) as part of his CKay the First EP, Nigerian producer and singer CKay is enjoying a renaissance of the song after it went viral on TikTok this month. A mellow take on Afrobeats, the song is famous for its experimental feel and tender lyrics. Since mid September, it has become the most Shazamed song in the world, holding off Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s Stay. Last week, the song debuted at number nine on the Official Singles Chart Top 100, hinting at future success for the singer whose ambient interpretation of Afropop deserves plenty of praise.
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The return of Netflix hit show Sex Education put the world’s focus on Nigeria, when Eric Effiong (played by Ncuti Gatwa) headed to the West African country for a wedding ceremony in episode six. While the biggest topic of discussion from that episode was the repressive anti-homosexuality laws entrenched in the Nigerian constitution, as well as a vibrant underground queer culture, Nigerian music also featured heavily with praise for the song selection. One of the songs featured is Skales’ 2014 hit track Shake Body.
Originally born in Kaduna state, Skales Moved to Lagos as a teenager with dreams of making it big and signed to Banky W’s Empire Mates Entertainment in 2009. Despite early promise with singles like Mukulu and Keresimesi, as well as impressive showings on posse cuts like Baddest Boy and Get Down Tonight, the singer’s time with the label petered out and he left without ceremony in 2014. Skales returned later that year with Shake Body, a bawdy, hyper-vivid anthem that ruled nightclubs across the country and instantly made him one of the country’s leading pop figures.