Amaarae is embracing an era of excess on her critically-lauded second album. Here, she speaks on creating a judgement-free zone with her vision of pop maximalism.
“I love Sagittarians but they have main character syndrome,” Amaarae reads me to filth. When I meet Amaarae at a studio in the heart of Dalston, London, it’s the third time we’ve spoken in three years, a period that’s seen her catapulted from a regional alté act to an international star serving up pop alchemy to the masses. “One of my main songwriting partners is the archetypal Sag. I like that you think the world revolves around you,” she continues with a grin. We’re discussing her single, ‘Co-Star’, a harpsichord-inflected anthem named after the app providing users with daily horoscopes and bespoke compatibility advice based on birth charts. Reeling off would-be lovers based on their Zodiac, Amaarae plays on our automated compulsion to engage in a sign off. “I didn’t get into astrology until I was in LA,” she says. “What’s your sign? That’s the first thing people say now. I realised it’s such a big part of our culture, how we interact and build connections.”
Where in arguably the zenith of Amaarae’s career so far. Every artist wants the “Sad Girlz” co-sign: she features on ‘Sossaup’, the best track off of KAYTRAMINÉ’s collaborative album, Janelle Monáe’s pleasure-seeking, ragga-fuelled Dionysia ‘The Rush’, and on an exclusive song for the H&M-Mugler collaboration alongside fellow transgressors Shygirl, Eartheater and Arca. Amaarae’s make-up artist interjects, gently admonishing us for conversing animatedly whilst she applies masterstrokes to her dewy face. It’s hard to pin Amaarae down. Her life right now is fast-moving and transnational. Amaarae – born Ama Serwah Genfi – has always been an itinerant being; her roots are Ghanaian, but she was born in New York and raised between Atlanta and New Jersey. Today, she’s in London, tomorrow she’s jetting to the US for a round of intense album promo. Has she taken a moment to sit still and soak it all in? “Life is lifing right now! I don’t usually get nervous but I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed. All of this…” she trails off. “It feels like we’re levelling up in every way possible.”
Amaarae’s new album, ‘Fountain Baby’, is the definitive soundtrack to summer ’23. An intense and audacious global pop experience, the 14-track song cycle is geared towards the fantasy of black regality, joyrides, carnal pursuits and high-stakes romance. Throughout Amaarae reconfigures the late nineties-early noughties “pop era” in her image. Her video for lead single, ‘Reckless & Sweet’, is a carefully regarded expression of the material-minded mythology of Tom Ford’s reign at Gucci; the singer and her paramours play out the satin sensuality of a Gucci ad campaign, evoking Ford’s risqué exploration of high-octane femme and a lived-in but sophisticated type of glamour. “We took Tom Ford’s iconic business casual look and transplanted it with these sexy images,” Amaarae explains. “We experimented with cameras and we lit things low using natural light. It’s different to the super HD look that is so pervasive today. I looked to the past to play with a vision of who I am today,” she says.
Amaarae debuted in 2017 with the lush and mellow EP ‘Passionfruit Summers’, but it was her sleeper hit ‘Spend Some Time’ that catalysed a move away from her native Ghana to the fringe alternative scene in Nigeria, with its booming industry and major label presence. “It didn’t make sense to stay in a localised space. I had to be courageous and bold, move to where I felt risk was rewarded. I felt acceptance in Lagos, because I saw they had an alternative scene that was progressing rapidly. From there it was easier to move to the British alternative scene and then to the American one,” she says.
Amaarae’s debut album, ‘The Angel You Don’t Know’, was a stadium-sized aspiration realised. It bridged Southern Rap, punk and psychedelia with hazy highlife and slick, supine RnB beats. Amaarae credits the project with giving her the license to lean into her sexual quirks: to role play and gender bend at whim. “I grew into my role as a producer. I found my voice and I began trusting my gut more. It was the ultimate testing ground for this new album,” Amaarae reflects. Soon after the release of ‘TAYDK’, in the opening months of 2021, Amaarae was galvanised. She’d been sent beats by her producer KZDidIt- beats he merely wanted her to sit with. A livewire, Amaarae started to sow and disperse the seeds of her prickly creativity.
“These were just foundations but I felt something shift within me,” Amaarae says. “I hit up a young Nigerian producer Cracker Mallo and he sent me a demo called ‘Disguise’. I felt my mind expand because I was listening to Afrobeats on steroids.” Deeper into the production process, she connected with RnB impresario Babyface in LA, who schooled Amaarae on his essential musical tenets. “He said that if I’m writing a song, I need to complete the thought,” she says. “The three days that I spent with him were a songwriting masterclass. The minute I left I called (close collaborator) Maesu and told him we need to rewrite the whole album.”
A crate-digger and scholar of MTV-era entertainment, Amaarae regularly tweets her nostalgic trips with links, recommendations and anecdotal notes. She reads from the comprehensive guide of famous singer-producer pairings and her fascination with the American dream – the hall-of-famers and the iconoclasts – manifests on the all-killer-no-filler ‘Fountain Baby’. The album is a showcase in cultural synthesis; it’s what happens when Ennio Morricone’s orchestral ornamentation combines with eastern exotica, punk revivalism and turbocharged Alté percussion.
‘Angels In Tibet’ takes cues from the ‘Justified’-era partnership between Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, an exquisite fusion of sampled originality in an age of innocuous commercialisation. For Amaarae, the album was inspired in part by a desire to be more declarative and brazen. “I wanted to add bombast to a sound that is often sunlit and feel-good,” Amaarae says. “I don’t know that I’ve heard next-gen African music be dramatic – I think Rema has that balance down. I was inspired by scores and was intentional about heightening these songs with drama. I’m marrying worlds that you wouldn’t otherwise hear.”
The fourth track on ‘Fountain Baby’, ‘Princess Going Digital’, is a tribute to The Neptunes’ and their spacey synth-work. “A Nigerian producer called Tochi Bedford sent me that beat and I lost my fucking mind,” Amaarae recalls. “He’d seen me tweet about The Neptunes, and I thought he was so receptive. He took their signature sound and put it over an alté beat; it’s African but we’re paying homage to Pharrell and Hugo.” On the song, Amaarae pleads with the object of her desire to take her out the streets, just one example of her ability to subvert internet colloquials into something mythic. I ask if she’s actually “out the streets?” “Let’s just say I’ve been missing in action. I was still on the streets when I made that song, but at the moment the streets and I are divorced,” Amaarae says with a grimace.
Amaarae recalls a gruelling 6-hour session making ‘Disguise’. Animated by the melismatic phraseology of 70s Bollywood film soundtracks, Amaarae bemoans the transactional nature of modern love in her breathy staccato, purring her way to the climactic chorus. Her vocal reference across much of ‘Fountain Baby’ was Janet Jackson and her muted alternative to the vibrato-laden power balladeers of her time. Amaarae channelled the ‘The Velvet Rope’ and its study on radical softness, poetic subtlety, and what she deems “the right balance of abrasiveness and tender rawness”. She continues, “People underestimate how great a vocalist Janet is because her range is limited. I thought about my own range, and how I could use my lower register as a kind of vocal weapon the way she did.”
‘Fountain Baby’ concludes with ‘Come Home To God’, a bracing stripper’s tale ripe with religious iconography, where God is kept close and man-made dogma is scrutinised. It’s a symbol for the album at large, focused on the pursuit of a personalised utopia; one where Amaarae’s battling between her conscience and her passions, between fear and fearlessness. It’s what she calls her “internal tug of war”, where she could happily fall into “a certain kind of love she’s never experienced before”, or go from “lovers to enemies; where I’ll fuck you but I’ll keep a gun under my pillow just in case.”
‘Fountain Baby’ is what happens when one creates with radical abandon. It breaks free from creative torpor. It’s modified and meticulously-designed, overflowing with innovative, heady ideas, with little regard for rubrics or convention – a working ethos Amaarae wants to pour into young African women. “It’s me pushing myself and the people I grew up with out of our comfort zones,” Amaarae muses deep in thought. “I’m not placing judgement; I’m saying the world is a big, expansive place. The sooner we the learn to accept the world is bigger than our conception the more we can move ahead as a culture. Africans are struggling with their relationship to God, but also with their innate desires. I want them to move through the world without fear and try something new.”
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: Joseph Delaney
Fashion: Lee Trigg
Hair: Rufina Stuart
Make Up: Lake Sanu
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers