sounds of the continent

2021 was the best year for Afrobeats in 20 years

By Dami Ajayi

Posted on January 28, 2022 07:34

Burna Boy on tour in the US
Burna Boy performs at the Outside Lands Music Festival at Golden Gate Park on Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in San Francisco. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

The year 2021 was perhaps Afrobeats biggest yet in its 20 years of roughing it.

Starting out early with the Grammys wins of Burna Boy and Wizkid in the first quarter, the winning streak continued with Wizkid’s Tems-assisted platinum-certified single ‘Essence’, which seized the airwaves all summer and peaked with fresh Grammys nominations for Burna Boy, Wizkid, Femi and Made Kuti.

They may seem to be the usual suspects invited to the Grammys party (save for Made Kuti), but our dance music is also marking uncharted territories. Crooner CKay’s 2019 sleeper hit ‘Love Nwantiti’ crept through the algorithms of social media app Tik-Tok to become a global ear-candy phenomenon with several remixes to boot! Fireboy DML’s late summer teaser single (presumably for his anticipated third album) ‘Peru’ grew from a national hit to international acceptance late last year, bolstered by an Ed Sheeran feature on its remix.

The enthusiasm of international pop stars — Sheeran, Justin Bieber (who honed a fine verse for the Essence remix) and Drake (who featured Tems on his Certified Lover Boy album) — for Afrobeats is also some measure of global acclaim.

A musical melting pot

While in Lagos, the undisputed capital of Afrobeats, the scene is lively, invigorated with the South-African Amapiano stock, the moment’s rave. Dance floors across the city are where experiences in different languages, social classes and locales are brought to boil in songs auditioned for the street. The street is a limitless source of material, providing slangs, mannerisms and dances, which articulate the West African spirit that the music showcases.

The cultural impact of singles may have waned, but it remains unrivalled in spite of the continued emergence of the compact EP. Newcomer Ruger, styled with an eye patch, slugged out two pandemic-themed EPs — Pandemic and The First Wave — in a manner reminiscent of Omah Lay’s releases of 2020, but missed the accolades of Best New Act only by a hair’s breadth. Buju worked hard, but arrived late (and short) to the party with his slow-burn EP aptly titled Sorry I’m Late. Lojay, whose dreamy mid-summer 4-track release LV N ATTN, a joint project with veteran producer Sarz,  is a staggering accomplishment that could only be compared with Kizz Daniel’s marvellous EP, Barnabas. Little wonder, Lojay is 2021’s best new act.

2021 saw Tems consolidate her gains as a fast-rising singer, with her outstanding performance on ‘Essence’, appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert and on her second EP ( first on a major record label) If Orange was a Place. Mavin Records princess, Ayra Starr, delivered both a self-titled EP and an anthemic album, 19 & Dangerous, which articulates the Nigerian perspective of the Generation Z experience, while her label-mate/rapper LadiPoe finally wins big with his second EP, Providence, and the Buju-assisted single, ‘Feeling’, his second consecutive hit single in two years. Tiwa Savage, formerly of Mavin Records, delivered a phenomenal EP, Water & Garri, her prestige undaunted by a leaked sex tape.

The LP album may not have fared as well as the EP in both 2020 and 2021, but there were some iconic releases. Although Olamide’s UY Scuti pales behind his previous album, LP Carpe Diem, it exposes his artistic range to an international audience. Highlife sibling duo The Cavemen floored the sophomore curse with their experimental Love & Highlife released only a year after their classic debut Roots. Music producer Julz’s Sound of My World,  a late release, is a star-studded beauty courtesy of the UK Diaspora, which also gave us rapper Dave’s excellently titled sophomore We’re all Alone in This Together and Little Simz’s iconic Sometimes I May be Introvert. Rapper Blaqbonez’s macho and ribald LP Sex Over Love sets him off as a hard-core rapper who could swing at hits without jeopardising either meaning or poise.

Adekunle Gold – a crooner, dad and husband – continues his consecutive wins with monster hit singles, ‘High’ (featuring Davido) and ‘Sinner’ (featuring American singer Lucky Daye), postponing his highly anticipated fourth album for a date in 2022.

A turning tide

The year was not without losses. We lost Ayorinde Faboro aka Dokta Frabz in February at his base in America under unclear circumstances, but clearly unnatural causes. Dokta Frabz played a key role in the ascension of the genre and is survived by eternal hit songs helmed by the likes of Wizkid and Dagrin popular in the 2010s. Multihypenate rapper, singer, actor and comedian Sound Sultan succumbed to cancer in July. Victor Uwaifo, a highlife legend, impresario and renaissance man also passed away at the age of 80 in August, drawing the curtains on the greats of the golden era of highlife. Victor Chujor-Idowu, popularly known as Beats By Jayy, died at the prime age of 28 from Covid-19 related complications in November. Beats By Jayy worked closely with hip-hop acts/rappers MI Abaga, Loose Kaynon, A-Q and held majority production credits on Blaqbonez’s brilliant Sex Over Love.

2021 may have been huge for Afrobeats in general, but it was not particularly flattering for Davido’s artistic output. He however compensated his fans with a staggering gesture of philanthropy, raising a whooping 250m naira ($599,988) for charity. Peckham export Naira Marley also had a rather mild season, while his record label signees – Mohbad and Zinoleesky – continue to ace street-hop singles like clockwork.

The year came to its raucous end with a buffet of concerts in Lagos and two unlikely hits for the Xmas season: Goya Menor’s jump on Nektunez’s production called ‘Amenor Amapiano (remix)’ and Portable’s ‘Zazu Zeh’ with an inspired assist from rapper Olamide.

2022 may be full of promise, but January is when the industry takes its much deserved holiday.

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