Contemporary African Music, controversially called Afrobeats, has waited more than a decade for that final American crossover. This music whose heartbeat resides in Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria, has waited for that special envoy, that spectacular singer whose vocal cords will ship this music back to world prominence.
Let’s agree that Wizkid has always been the chosen one. Coming into prominence when Afrobeats began to find African idioms, Wizkid turned from a rapper to a crooner of melodies. Attention was showered on him, when he did the hook of M.I’s Fast Money Fast Cars. Handpicked by Banky W’s EME record label, his debut album Superstar is definitely a modern Afrobeat classic, poor sonic quality notwithstanding.
His self-named second album, Ayo, took Wizkid’s fanbase out of an African spread to rouse curiosity in the United Kingdom. On the strength of Ojuelegba – Wizkid’s poster song of Afrobeats ascension, the consciousness he stirred throttled the good news of Afrobeats (through Drake) to America.
Last summer, One Dance, was the one song on everyone’s lips from Dopemu to Denver. Alas, the foretaste had come forth and the American palate was primed. Afrobeats music is made for dance. Although born from Western and Caribbean influences, with shuffling rhythms and an insistent percussion, this fusion was surely brewed in Lagos.
Well, the rest is not history. This is the summer of 2017 and Wizkid has released an album he gives a definitive title, Sounds from the Other Side. This is the ultimate teaser, being marketed to win the American dance floor for Lagos.
There are issues, but let’s start with the issue of nomenclature. This product is being marketed as a mixtape – a cheeky move. SFOS is every inch a LP album so why call it differently? Then to the actual title, Sounds from the Other Side, is quite a patronising if not condescending title. Here is the poster boy of Afrobeats knocking softly on the American Tragus, seeking audience.
Wizkid hasn’t come alone. He is in the midst of some American superstar friends. Drake’s slurred syrupy voice didn’t quite slurp Come Closer, even if Nigerians won’t forgive him for ‘boycotting’ the music video. Chris Brown’s croon on African Bad Gyal is useful to the melodious refrain. Add Major Lazer, Trey Songz and TY Dolla Sign twice to the rotation, before bringing in Bucie, Wizkid’s only African accomplice.
This is a listening party pretty much like the Island Records released 1980 album, Juju Music. That album which was the physical product of Martin Meissonier’s chance experience with King Sunny Ade’s music and an attempt to find a Third World replacement for the legend Bob Marley. It was a delightful introduction of Juju to a world audience that did not seem interested.
D’Banj, helmsman at the instance of the pursuit of African idioms for Afrobeats (see his Entertainer Album), also dabbled with gaining an American audience. Wrong timing. His music has not recovered from this setback.
Sounds from the Other Side should have been called Sounds from Everywhere because that is what it is. This is Wizkid experimenting with several sounds, most especially the Caribbean sound. If there is a dominant sound on this album, it is that insistent Dancehall ridding that we cannot quite lay claim to. This is not 1977, this isn’t Kingston either or anywhere near Jamaica, the Sounds from the Other Side, ironically works as a title for the Nigerian listener. Yea, Wizkid giving Caribbean influences their due.
The idiom isn’t much different. Wizkid on this LP sounds formulaic; there are those syrupy drawls we are used to, Wizkid singing about booty convulsing to dance, curating an exotic delight for the American audience. When this album moves away from Caribbean influences and mid-tempo tedium, it finds some R&B inflections. Picture Perfect and All for Love almost stand out.
For a third album in a dynamic discography, this is a dip. But here comes the mix-tape allocutus and the international audience cop-out. This album just wears international make-up for the Afrobeats sound. And clearly, the plural form deployed for the ‘Sounds’ in the album title becomes misleading.
The reception of this album has been overwhelming, if not congratulatory. Critics, pundits, social media influencers revel in the moment because of its importance. Afrobeats is at the cusp of American relevance. If Wizkid pushes these doors open, the benefits will be widespread. But if the doors don’t stay open for long, well, the flaw lies with the door hinges, not our music.