2020 Is The Year Nigeria Flexes Its Cultural Clout

2020 Is The Year Nigeria Flexes Its Cultural Clout

Seven key projects to check out...

Nigerian music was primed to enjoy another year of growth after a good showing in 2019 that centered the thematic importance of multi-song projects as curated evidences of human experiences that, often, extend into a community, both within the country, and, other times, in the diaspora.

Culturally relevant projects like Burna Boy’s 'African Giant' and Davido’s 'A Good Time' hogged the limelight because of the profile of their creators but visceral, fresh releases like Lady Donli’s 'Enjoy Your Life', Asa’s 'Lucid' and Falz’s 'Moral Instruction' were potent offerings bursting with life, angst, joy, politics, and Black pride to end Nigerian music’s miracle decade.

Unfortunately, like most places in the world right now, regularly scheduled life in Nigeria continues to be affected by COVID-19. The adverse effects of the pandemic has finagled its way into every part of society while the precautionary steps encouraged to combat its continued spread - social distancing and movement restrictions - mean that revelers and party-goers cannot congregate in the spaces that hold delight for us.

The uncertainties of life, at this point, has caused a small depression in the constant churning of the music industry, nonetheless, there have been a number of projects that have held the attention of - and helped - listeners through difficult times over the past six months.

Chike and Drb LasGidi have stepped forward to share their long-awaited debut projects while Oxlade and WurlD have captured public attention with their well-sequenced, prolific projects.

These bodies of work are not only among the best out of Nigeria, they are a prosaic reminders that there was a life before the ennui of lockdown; that there can be flickers of happiness while we are socially distanced; and that there is the promise of something on the other side of this pandemic.

In no particular order, these are seven Nigerian projects from 2020 that you’ll enjoy.

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For so long, WurlD was - at least in Nigerian music terms - a caterpillar, operating from the outside of convention and accessibility to his soul/R&B hybrid sound. But since moving back to Lagos, he has been hard at work, learning on the job, and pulling Nigerian influences and parlance into his music.

2019’s artsy cult classic 'Love Is Contagious' helped him find a footing, and six months down the line, his joint effort with Sarz, 'I Love Girls With Trobul', decidedly nudged him into innovator category as he effortlessly splashed afrobeats’ vibrancy over house and techno beats that appeared custom-fitted for him.

On 'AFROSOUL', he synthesises his scintillating songwriting and truthful delivery to produce his most native work yet, accepting all the cues and inhabiting every second of the project even when he’s wordless. From beginning to end, we are in WurlD’s universe, watching an urgent transformation from caterpillar to butterfly in real-time.

'NATIONAL ANTHEM (GROWING WINGS)' starts out defiant and boisterous but as the minutes wind down, it contorts into something prickly and clairvoyant: “Growing wings tonight, you can’t bring me down cause I found myself,” he sings. What a feeling!

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Drb LasGidi - 'Pioneers'

Ideologically and conceptually, DRB LasGidi are at the forefront of Lagos’ alte community after more than a decade spent fronting the ideals of personal liberty and expression that define alteism, but their debut album does not swim in the experimental puddle of ‘70s Lagos funk and soft rock and alt-pop that thematically defines some of the foremost alte records of the last five years.

DRB LasGidi’s album, aptly titled 'Pioneers', is a primer on popular music from Lagos. It almost sounds like the group spent months scouring the legendary parties that make Lagos the cultural centre of Nigeria to piece together this album: Saturday Owambes, drug and alcohol-fueled invite-only youth raves on the Island, and the riotous bacchanals that have allowed the mainland remain at the forefront of cultural mutation. These distinct sounds, mined to their most existential forms and fused with hip-hop, trap, house and soul influences, form the backbone of 'Pioneers'.

Importantly, the 12-tracker is a product of their community. We hear the voices of alte champions, past, present, and future, on 'Ma Pariwo', 'Salty', and 'I Swear', marinating on beats by GMK, Genio Bambino, and Higo without alienating the rest of Lagos.

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Chike - 'Boo Of The Booless'

Chike’s 'Boo Of The Booless' came out weeks before Nigeria recorded its first case of COVID-19 and is a reminder of those last heady days before shuttering became our joint reality. However, more than a mere reminder of a not-so-distant past, 'Boo Of The Booless' is a sonic odyssey taking in the wonder, joy, and descension into grief that love can inspire and trigger.

It starts with the gorgeous horns of 'Beautiful People' and the warning that, “some people wey you meet, go show you good loving, oh dem go come your way, no let them go away.” From there, Chike takes us through his doubt-laden phase on 'If You No Love' before finding finding optimism on the softly-steering lo-fi hip-hop of 'Forever'.

As the album nears centre, Chike delves deeper into a melding of R&B and highlife - and pidgin and Igbo language - to translate feelings into music and angst into digestible bits that feel jarringly real because of their universality.

'Boo Of The Booless' doesn’t overcompensate, it is earnest without being messy and a reassuring body of work that will stand the test of time.

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M.I. Abaga & A-Q - 'The Live Report'

Despite rapping for more than 10 years, M.I. Abaga has never seemed in danger of running out of truths and timely point-of-views to put on wax, and only few rappers anywhere in the last two years have out-rapped A-Q. But this doesn’t make their joint album, 'The Live Report', any less groundbreaking.

Recorded in five days, the project is very much of its time. Part- social criticism, part-aggrandizing, and self-examination, the duo delivered a state of the nation discourse as Nigeria entered lockdown. Deftly confronting religiosity on 'Jesus Said Use Your Head' and examining mortality on 'When I’m Gone', they interject the brief spurts of melody with hard-hitting bars.

In a year where both rappers had already released different projects, their prolific streak reached an all-time high with 'The Live Report'.

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Oxlade - 'Oxygene'

A key member of the class of Nigerian musicians fundamentally changing the trajectory of afrofusion with lucid lyricism and genre-less fluidity, Oxlade has taken the long road to get his debut project released since breaking out in 2018.

In the period it has taken to get 'Oxygene' out, Oxlade’s singature sunny hooks and choruses have added another dimension to songs by Melvitto, DJ Tunez; and even Brixton’s finests, Skengdo, Sneakbo and AM, have tapped him for a collaboration that further deepened the links between London and Lagos.

'Oxygene' opens with a mention to his time in London, 'O2', but it is only a tongue-in-cheek reference for the romance that inspired the project. Every song thereafter, 'Hold On', 'Away', and 'Kokose', is a derivative of that love’s influence maxed out across myriads of sonic styles that weaves listeners into the narrative without burdening them with heartbreak.

Oxlade's hard-earned optimism allows him reflect on the joys of that love without drowning in the inverse, "Something must kill a man," he mischievously admits on 'Weakness'.

If you have wondered why Nigerian music is being praised as an energiser of global pop, one listen to Oxygene will assuage your curiosity. 

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Brymo - 'Yellow'

'Yellow' is the sort of record that Brymo has spent his whole career inching towards: a supersized, cinematic effort built on mundane experiences lurching decidedly beyond his artistic comfort zone. And while he falls just short of making an undeniable classic, the body of work is no less spectacular.

The enigma is shadowboxing with hip-hop influences on 'Espirit De Corps', the opening song of the opening part of the troika that forms Yellow. That first part of the album is enlivened by strong beat selections that meets optimal output on 'Heartbreak Songs Sound Better In English'.

At other times, 'Yellow' is aided by candid writing: “All over the world I’m known/ But I’m still that kid from the ghetto,” Brymo confesses on 'Strippers + White Lines/ Smart Monkey'.

But mostly, what is Brymo’s grand chameleonic manifesto is spent writing towards a void that won’t be called by its name or directly confronted despite its obvious presence. What we do get are occasional moments of cinematic thrill ('Without You' and 'Rara Rira') that are supported by the unbeatable nucleus of Yoruba-centric songs that end the project.

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Vector and Mastaa - 'Crossroads'

Since 2018, Nigerian hip-hop has been undergoing a creative renaissance, borrowing from the eclectic elements that make afrobeats and afrofusion a delight to enhance its appeal. Rap veteran, Vector, has also been on a new lease of life, creating great work at fast and furious pace.

But it is on 'Crossroads', his collaborative effort with premier beatmaker, Masterkraft, that his breakneck pace is dialed down to sound the most balanced and in-tune. Vector’s philosophic impulses are catered to perfectly on songs like 'No Peace' and 'If We Must (Sun X Rain)' while his emotive delivery ensures that the songs don’t lack heartfelt sincerity.

Mastaa handles the switch from pensive meditation to party-starting bops without incidence, holding together the roving mix of trap, electronic music, and dancehall that pop up throughout with minimal fuss.

'Crossroads’ guests are not there to simply make up the number meaning that DJ Magnum and Neptune add colour when they appear.

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Words: Wale Oloworekende

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