Nigeria’s Ayo Balogun has been making waves under his moniker Wizkid since 2009. But for many with no connection to the continent, the Nigerian superstar’s appearance on Drake’s record-breaking ‘One Dance’, was the first they’d ever heard of the self-styled Starboy.
It’s been over seven years since Wizkid’s first single ‘Holla at Your Boy’ was released as part of his ‘Superstar’ album. The song attracted some serious buzz and paved the way for a string of hypnotic hits such as ‘Tease Me/Bad Guys’, ‘Pakurumo’ and ‘Don’t Dull’ which received an Akon-assisted remix.
By the time he’d followed up with his self-titled second album, ‘Ayo’ in 2014, Wizkid was already in a league of his own. Littered with appearances from everyone from Wale to Tyga and SA House super producer, Uhuru – Wiz’s idiosyncratic mix of afrobeat (the genre pioneered by the great Fela Kuti), reggae, R&B and hip hop was helping to shape the now distinctive sound of West African pop. The album’s standout smashes include ‘Show You The Money’ and the mesmerizing ‘Ojuelegba’ which details his struggles growing up in one of Lagos’ infamous ghettoes and went on to gain a special affinity with UK fans after Skepta and Drake dropped verses on the official remix.
Now on his third major project - the first since signing a deal with RCA – the release of ‘Sounds From The Other Side’ represents a crucial moment for both Wizkid and afropop. Drawing comparisons to the breakout of Sean Paul and the success of dancehall in the Noughties, with so much international interest in the West African sound, Wiz is under close scrutiny.
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It’s particularly important when you consider that right now, the most popular music coming out of the Black British underground is overtly African in its style. Initially viewed with scepticism due to stigmas around the continent, afropop (or afrobeats as it’s mostly referred to) was something that British-African musicians tended to distance themselves from. Blending English slang, Jamaican patois and West African dialects to create a new genre altogether, the scene has witnessed the rise and acceptance of proponents of the afro bashment-cum-grime-cum-trap sound such as J Hus, Sneakbo, Afro B, Abracadabra and Kojo Funds. However, with many of these up-and-comers most likely inspired by artists like Wizkid, and previously not able to openly make reference, his mainstream debut is important for the acceptance of the genre in its purest form.
‘Sounds From The Other Side’ is bursting with big name features, great tunes and top-notch production – including Ty Dolla $ign, Major Lazer, DJ Mustard - but unlike ‘Superstar’ and ‘Ayo’ before it, this project is missing the iconic Starboy sparkle. While there appears to have been a U-turn on referring to it as an album (Wiz is calling it an EP), as an introduction to an evolving Wizkid, ‘Sounds From The Other Side’ makes sense.
From the offset, Wiz pays homage to his Nigerian heritage, opening the 12-track EP with the melodic ‘Sweet Love’ a song that draws influence from Fela Kuti’s afrobeat hit ‘Shakara Oloje’. Propped up by the hum of saxophones and auto-tune ‘Sweet Love’ makes for a subtle start. The project’s most upbeat offerings come by way of ‘Naughty Ride’, ‘African Bad Girl’ and ‘Daddy Yo’. Produced by Major Lazer ‘Naughty Ride’ is a waist-whining ode to a beautiful girl that borrows from Bob Marley and the Wailer’s ‘Ride Natty Ride’. Not typically known for his lyrical prowess but moreso his skill for creating popping melodies, Wiz delivers a hook that will no doubt stick in the mind.
Similarly, the SARZ-produced ‘African Bad Gyal’, a boisterous afro-dance riddim that originally surfaced online back in 2014, features Chris Brown channeling his best Nigerian twang to bring the chorus to life. Then there’s ‘Daddy Yo’, the Efya-assisted lead single, masterminded by Dre Skullz, the talent behind hits for Jamaican artists such as Vybz Kartel, Konshens and Popcaan. Released at the end of 2016, ‘Daddy Yo’ looked like a nod to the mainstream – a hipster friendly dancehall-infused track, that in an alternate form, could quite happily accommodate rapper M.I.A. due to its offbeat, drawn-out vocals. Despite being a strong track, it didn’t seem to generate the attention it was due and appeared to leave some African-based fans confused.
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The two features by American singer/rapper, Ty Dolla $ign ‘One For Me’ and ‘Dirty Wine’, don’t quite hit the mark. Delivering revamped 90s R&B for a new audience, ‘One For Me’ is a spin on ‘You’re The One’ by super group SWV. The better of the two tracks is the DJ Mustard produced ‘Dirty Wine’, a conspicuous move for a radio-friendly single. Admittedly it works - it’s got the signature Mustard style - but considering that Ty is on the hook, it’s surprisingly not that catchy. A big name feature that does work on the EP is ‘Gbese’ with Trey Songz. Bursting with that characteristic Wizkid energy, admittedly this is another random pairing that didn’t really need Trey, but nonetheless he plays his position allowing Wizkid to shine at every stage.
‘Picture Perfect’, ‘Come Closer’ and ‘Nobody’ are Wizkid at his best. A blend of the Banku and Alkayida styles courtesy of Spellz, ‘Picture Perfect’ is a fan favourite. Uncomplicated by a clear hook and simple lyrics, this hypnotic dedication to his beloved avoids the usual catalogue of clichéd afropop phrases. Arguably, the most recognizable track off the EP, ‘Come Closer’ alongside Drake (and another SARZ beat) has become the biggest African anthem of the past few months, receiving countless spins across radio. ‘Nobody’ a solo effort from the Nigerian singer, sees him wax lyrical over another reggae-inspired production.
What’s clear on ‘Sounds From The Other Side’ is that Wiz boldly moves between genres, something he often does, but this time it’s not with his usual gusto – the project is slow tempo and the absence of a crescendo is apparent. Wizkid is known for his bold and experimental style, and although he continues to show his talent, appeal and versatility, ‘Sounds From The Other Side’ is at best a cautious packaging of afropop for the masses.
If ‘One Dance’ helped Wizkid kick down the door for afropop, then ‘Sounds From The Other Side’ is holding it open.
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'Sounds From The Other Side' is out now.
Words: Nonny Orakwue