WANI first appeared on the scene in 2018 with the sun-soaked EP 'Lagos City Vice', songs like 'China Designer', '2 Face' and 'Instaman' pouring lustful ecstasy and feel-good frivolity over sprightly highlife percussion. What sets WANI apart from his peers is his transatlantic appeal. Born in Washington DC with years spent in London before settling in Lagos, WANI suffuses his songs with the hallmarks of Y2K R&B: the charged embrace of fast love, smooth-talking lyricism, vocal harmonics imbued within upcoming single 'Times Two' replete with sensuous riffs and sweet nothings.
On his 8-track follow up and sequel, 'Lagos City Vice II', WANI showcases his evolution as an artist moving from the fringes to the mainstream, combining his lover-boy persona with a mercurial energy, anchoring weighty anecdotes with end-of-summer melancholy: On the cascading heat of 'Smoke Out The Window', WANI laments his noncommittal ways, 'God Bless The Child' is an angsty tale of survival and grit, even the amatory 'Grown Girl' prickles with nervous energy, the clock running out on a hook-up.
CLASH spoke to WANI ahead of the release of 'Lagos City Vice II' as part of our digital #PLTFRM series spotlighting global talent breaking down barriers. WANI opened up about the importance of charting his growth as a self-made musician, his enduring love of Craig David, recalling the beauty, vitality and collaborative spirit of Nigeria in his work and why 'Lagos City Vice II' is just one chapter in a long quest for self-actualization.
Unlike your contemporaries in the Nigerian music scene, you were born in Washington before settling in Lagos. What was a young Wani listening to? What artists influenced you growing up?
I was born in DC, but most of my formative years were spent moving back and forth between London and Nigeria. I was between continents. The reason I was moving around a lot was because of school. I got kicked out of school a lot. I was a bit of a rebel but growing up, I used to think of it as a disadvantage but the older I got the more I realized all these places shaped and influenced me - I was able to pull my influences from the music I was listening to.
I grew up listening to African artists like 2face, P-Square to local artists like Shuki and then of course Craig David, Kanye and Jay Z. All that moving around in my youth gave me a wider range of influences.
I love the Craig David mention because we so often view his contributions to music in a nostalgic sense, as this bygone artist but his imprint is all over modern RnB today...
Craig David never needs to release anything again. That 'Born To Do It' album was all he ever needed to release. I take so much inspiration from what that guy did in that time, I just try and put an African spin on it.
Any other artists that ignited your love of music?
I have two off the top of my head. 'College Dropout' by Kanye is a record I used to play in my freshman year of college. I experienced this album in my own time, not the way everyone else did. it's like the album found me when I needed it most. Wande Coal 'Mushin to Mo'Hits', his debut album, was a big one for me also.
You haven't released much since your debut. Are you an artist that bides your time mapping out your next move?
The thing about music and my life is that I've struggled with consistency a lot but the only thing that has been consistent in my life is my calling to do music. Everytime I tried to put music aside or forget about it, it always kept calling me back. The moment when I realised that I could actually turn it into a career would be in 2018 with my first project 'Lagos City Vice'. At that time, I'd just finished university in Chicago, I was moving back to Lagos, I had no idea what I wanted to do, no idea how life would turn out. I came back to Lagos with 500 dollars in my pocket and five songs that would later turn into 'Lagos City Vice'.
I put the project out with not type of plan, which is very obvious now with how the project rolled out but I don't know what it was about the project that just made it connect and gave me a following just based off this one project. The project had no visuals, it had no PR budget behind it, no type of promo behind it but it connected. Ever since then I've been trying to listen to this fanbase, level it up and give them more of me. I've always been a reserved person but something has to give, you know? I can't be totally reserved in order to get to where I need to be.
You bring up a really good point about mystery, perfectionism and accessibility in music. There seems to be a dissonance between perception and self-preservation for artists especially in our social media age. Are you a perfectionist? Do you grapple with that dichotomy?
I hear you. I would call myself a perfectionist but I’m trying to step away from that because I’ve seen the advantages and disadvantages of having that mindset. Being a perfectionist is actually a bigger disadvantage than it is an advantage; being a perfectionist wastes a lot of time, time is not really something I have a lot of right now – I have so many goals I want to achieve. I feel like this new project is a turning point in my life. I’m trying to get away from that perfectionist mentality I have and just let it flow. I feel like in this day and age the world rewards consistency more than anything so now I’m striving for that. I feel like that is a better strategy to approach this music thing. The reason as to why I don’t release as much is because music is so dear to me; I feel every time I release a song my soul goes out. I want to make sure that it’s the perfect representation of who I am when I’m putting out music. i don’t play around with music, it’s something I hold very dear to me.
Your debut ‘Lagos City Vice’ was this collection of breezy, hedonistic afrofusion songs. That was the first introduction to who WANI is. When you revisit the project and that era, how do you feel about it?
Do you know what’s funny? When you go into it with no expectation, no prior experience, it can feel like a novelty. That part of my life was transitional. I was in the clubs like every weekend so the music was obviously a reflection of the life I was living at that point in time. As an artist you can only ever reflect on what you’re going through. ‘Lagos City Vice’ was before I moved to Lagos, the new project is me in Lagos. The themes I’m exploring on this project are just more of the things I’ve been going through. It’s not just a party record, you know? If you lived through Lagos in the pandemic, then you know it’s not all fun and games; the reality of Lagos is much more different. These darker themes are touched on with the new project.
Of course, I still maintained some of the fun I worked with on the first project but overall, it’s more of a complete expression of who I am going to be.
Lagos, Nigeria is this melting pot and confluence of genres and movements. What is it that sets Lagos apart from the world? What is it about the culture, its creative community, its music scene that is different?
Everything that makes Lagos citizens hate Lagos makes us love it; the chaos, the beauty, the beauty in the chaos. I always feel like Lagos is a place where it’s just a madhouse, you actually have to be here to fully experience what being in Lagos is like. It’s unlike anything else.
Lagos is the centre and even within our own culture there is a lot of different subcultures. You’re right, Lagos is a melting pot in the way London is, in the way Toronto is; a different melting pot of different cultures, a melting pot of different African cultures. You have people from the North who come in and bring their style, people from the east have their own style and of course, people like me who grew up in America come with our own set of influences, try and tie it into sounds that are familiar to the masses over here.
Therein lies your appeal. A transatlantic sound: afrobeats but with a classic R&B edge. Do you find genres and the way you’re described limiting? Do you find it does your music a disservice, that you’re not just another conveyer belt afrobeats artist?
I can’t even complain about that. I try not to limit myself with any definitions of genres. Ultimately, I leave it with the people to put it into their own categories. In 2021, with Burna winning a Grammy, Wizkid releasing ‘Made In Lagos’ and seeing how it’s blown up over there in America, I feel everyone is in tune with this Afrocentric sound. No matter how you want to tag it, ears are listening to and people are embracing it.
So, you’re readying the release of ‘Lagos City Vice II’, a project three years in the making…
It’s crazy because it’s not a project that was squeezed out in a short amount time, there’s songs like ‘Level’ for example, that I recorded two years ago. I’ve had songs for a long time but it’s all a process. I was trying to secure a deal, so that kind of slowed me down. I wanted to make sure that the next project was backed by a team like Platoon, who could actually invest and help me get all these of opportunities.
As far as the creative part of the project, I had to live life to talk about things. Everything I lived through is what I basically put in the project. With ‘Level’, it plays out soundtracking the regular life of any young person in Lagos. A song like ‘Level’ is talking about my come-up, talking about how I expected nothing from starting this journey but I’ve gotten to a point where I’m able to receive opportunities like this, talking to Clash, being signed to Platoon, you know what I mean? Just having fans of my music is a crazy experience to me.
In what ways does it continue or develop or even diverge from the themes and sounds you were exploring on ‘Lagos City Vice’?
Songs like ‘God Bless The Child’ talk about the anxiety of being an artist and pushing myself to pursue my ambitions, those are the things I was talking about in that song. The party songs are still there, songs about women are still there, I’ve just taken a deeper, more considered approach this time.
It shows my growth as a person. With the first project, I was saying “I’m back here now let’s turn up”, this next one is more “let’s turn up but there are real life issues going on in my life now”. I feel like the only way for me to express them is to put them in this musical form and hopefully somebody relates to the deeper themes, like they related to the lighter themes in the first project. I didn’t stray too far from what was working. I definitely made a couple of jams for the women and jams for the clubs. Never fix what’s not broken.
The project has this late summer feel which is palpable on your single ‘Times Two’, the lead single to usher in the new era. What’s the story behind the ‘Times Two’?
The song really took shape with me and Buju. We made that song on Christmas Day funnily enough. We were supposed to be with our families on that day. The lyrics in Buju’s hook came from a discussion I was having in the studio about how I had no woman in my life. Out of nowhere Buju freestyled the hook “I got zero women on my line” but the main focus is making progress and getting his bread right.
I come in with the same sentiment: I’m talking about how I mask things. I like to contrast vibes, I may be talking about deep stuff but I put it on a party beat so even if you don’t want to listen to what I’m saying, you can still vibe to the beat. People who pay attention to the lyrics will always catch that I’m saying something that is really in contrast to how the beat actually sounds. I’m just trying to make sure that I can get my money right for this music thing man, I’m just trying to stay focussed and trying to stay away from distractions.
My favourite track is ‘Smoke Out The Window’, this sedate, smoky number that has a more nuanced R&B feel to it, a contrast to the other songs on the project. Tonally what is different about this one?
The person who ‘Smoke Out the Window’ is about is right here next to me as we speak. It’s about a situation where I couldn’t continue lying about a relationship. I was in a state of mind where I was thinking ‘let just let the chips fall with the lie’. Again, I put it on an up-tempo beat to mask the things I was saying but the song is about me being completely honest with this person I’m in a relationship with, telling her “look, I can’t be the one you love right now at this point in my life, I have things that are taking up most of my time right now. I can give you a little, I can give you my all but I can’t really give you everything.”
‘Level’ and ‘God Bless The Child’ are the more inwards-looking tracks on the project. What can you tell us about these two?
Those two tracks contrast each other. ‘Level’ is waking up, thanking God for your rise, thanking God for your progress and ‘God Bless The Child’ deals with the anxiety of not knowing if you’re going to make it. There’s a push and pull between those two songs and I think those are the strongest tracks emotionally and the songs that I feel I could listen to years from now.
Exactly. I went down the classic and timeless route with some of these songs. With ‘Lagos City Vice’, there were not enough timeless songs on there but with this one, ten years from now I can play this song for my kids and give them a perfect timeframe of what I was going through in my life at that time.
Your voice is a standout feature; it’s expressive and soulful. There’s depth and intricate layers at play. How do you approach the vocal production side of things? Do you record them and arrange them yourself?
Before I started releasing music, I was an engineer. In Chicago I used to engineer for artists and most of the skills I picked up was from my work as an audio engineer; it gave me a huge advantage when it came to songwriting. With my vocals, I’m not a one-take vocalist at all, I like to sit there, get it perfect, comp it, tweak them here and there, mix and master it myself before I put it out. With my audio engineering background, it gave me the advantages I needed. It’s not a process that really takes too long for me, I can do it in my sleep really.
You’re considered a part of the alté scene and this scene is very collaborative. What does this world represent to you?
The scene gave me my foundation, it gave me my fans who I’ll never turn my back on. I try and experiment with the mainstream but the alté scene is where I came from, most of my collaborators come from that scene like Odunsi, Show Dem Camp, Tems. Tems’ progression is super dope, she started from the alternative side and was able to branch off into the mainstream.
I respect the scene because it gave me my foundational start and collaborators but I try not to limit myself. I try to keep one foot in one foot out.
Best of both worlds… That’s how I live my life. I feel like that theory right there is how I live my life with most things. Keep one foot in on foot out, just in case I need to make a quick move.
On the subject of collaborators, speak on your creative relationship with HIGO. What does he bring to the table?
HIGO is a key figure in the alté scene. From working with Santi, he’s made his own mark and name. Not only is he a great guy, he is actually a very important part of the scene. For somebody to have done that much at 22, that’s huge! He worked with me on ‘Times Two’, he produced ‘No Love’ with me and Prettyboy D-O, who is another one of my frequent collaborators. I stressed him out with this project! He doesn’t even pick up my calls anymore from the amount of times I’ve stressed him out but I’ll leave him alone until the next project is ready.
Are you recording visuals for this project? Are you readying a full campaign?
The reason we’ve pushed the release date back a bit was because we wanted to start the campaign with a video. I’ve taken a long hiatus, so I wanted to come back with my best foot forward; the video will be the only way I can accomplish that. We’re putting a lot of effort into the visuals, and we’re already thinking about the location for the next shoot. It’s something that is very important to me, something that I didn’t do with the first project. I want to get right on this one for sure.
What’s on your playlist in 2021? Who are listening to? Any recommendations?
Right now, I’ve got ‘Culture III’ by Migos on heavy rotation. I’m listening to Prettyboy D-O, he just released a new single ‘Living in Bondage’. Lojay just released a project called ‘LV N ATTN’, that’s going crazy in the clubs down here. There’s this guy called Mustafa that I just came onto. He’s so crazy! His song ‘The Hearse’ has been on repeat. Deto Black is on here funnily enough.
Deto Black was last month’s #PLTFRM artist. She’ll have a big breakthrough this year with her project.
It’s amazing to see her progress and she’s just so dedicated to her craft. She’s new to this but the way she’s been able to come in with this bravado and claim her name…she’s someone I respect a lot.
I’m forever in awe of how interconnected and edifying the Nigerian music community is. There’s a real camaraderie between artists…
You know what’s crazy? Most of us grew up together so before we started making music and getting fans, we were friends. Some of us even went to the same school. The thing that separates me from them in a way is that I went to America super early in my journey. Most of them went to school in London together, they did A-Levels together, they went to uni together. I took that American route and I feel like sometimes it separates me from that whole scene of people that I grew up with. It helped shape me as a man and I feel like some time in isolation is always ideal for personal growth. Before I used to think I’m losing all my connections but now I really see the advantage of having spent that time with myself.
Are you already looking ahead to the next project? Is a debut album in the works?
A debut album is a heavy thing…right now I’m just I’m working on new music but I’m trying to approach it in a different way than I approached this project. I’m trying to see if I can centre it around like a theme, so the production process is much more seamless.
I’m not working on a debut album yet. I would want the buzz to be much higher when that lands. I’m definitely working on new music though.
Any last words on the experience of ‘Lagos City Vice II’, what do you want your fans and casual listeners to take away?
What I want to put out to the world is just more of myself as possible in every way possible. I want to actually give more of myself this time and that ties in to what I want the world to get; I want the world to get an authentic picture of where I am in my life. I used to place too much of a high value in authenticity, I realised the world doesn’t even reward that shit sometimes.
I want to open up my world, so even if people are coming in and they don’t want to stay for the music, at least stay for the person. It’s going to be a huge task for a person like me who is reserved but I want to see if I can pull that off and gain authentic listeners who support me for who I am and what they perceive my music to be. That’s all I want for this project; growth and development is all I desire from this project
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Words: Shazaib Hussain
Photography: Lakin Ogunbanwo