Ajebutter22’s Artistry Has Always Been Uniquely Nigerian & Culture-Defining
In anticipation of his new album, 'Soundtrack To The Good Life'
In anticipation of his new album, 'Soundtrack To The Good Life'
In the beginning, there was Ajebutter22. Before Alte culture significantly altered the landscape of African aesthetics, a Lagos-born musician was portraying a fresh narrative perspective and an even breezier approach to his branding. Career trajectories aren’t exactly crafted in perfect magical chambers, especially when Afropop music is involved, but there’s an element of timeliness in how the baritone-voiced rapper struck out. As pop stars flexed their pull, the rap game needed a musician who possessed similar smooth-talking skills, and even though unassumingly, the man born Akitoye Balogun stepped up. Ahead of his forthcoming sophomore album ‘Soundtrack To The Good Life,’ there isn’t a narrative strand out of place in the texture of what he’s achieved.
When considering Nigerian Pop in the contemporary era, there’s an irrefutable significance wedged in the pre-2015 era. In addition to the change in pace in mainstream pop music, there was also a changing of the Hip-Hop guard, a newer group of exciting rappers marking territory with distinct styles. Among the likes of Boogey, Phenom and Eva Alordiah, there was also a class of rappers which included Falz, Ladipoe (then known as Poe), and Ajebutter22. Unlike the MCs from previous eras, they had socially aware lyricism among their dominant skillset. In particular, Ajebutter22 was making music which was influenced by his Surulere background but not limited by it, adding colours from popular music elsewhere.
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I remember hearing “Senrere” for the first time on the radio, sitting indoors without much to do. There was an energy which seemed to heat the record from within, its thumping bass lines swirling around Ajebutter’s delivery with liquid ease. Even at that early stage in his career, there was remarkable confidence about how the rapper carried himself. It wasn’t just the words he was saying, but how he said them, like he had lived several lives and could predict the potential ebb of a relationship even before intimacy was established. Thinking now about that first record, I realise its production had a House-esque bounce which had the perfect pair with zesty electronic flourishes.
With 2014’s ‘Anytime Soon,’ the musician made his official presentation to the world. Combining visceral production with lived-in material, the project emerged with great potential and was one of the sleeper gems of its era. Even with the recognition of class through his sobriquet, Ajebuter22 shared little propensity for rap’s fictional zeal. His stories were a fork digging through the earthy crater of existence. “Okafor’s Law” is as affecting as any classic love-gone-wrong tale, the rapper painting vivid images over a mellow drum and piano base. Heartbreak not being a subject Nigerian rap has sufficiently addressed, Ajebutter’s rendition remains as important as it was nine years ago.
Elsewhere, his vision remained unrelenting. “Omo Pastor” became the commercial darling, but the narrative thrust which made the song such a delight was as well present on the conversational “What We Are”. There he stages the complication of being on unclear terms with someone, not sure if it’s love or something ephemeral. With the clear outline of his structure, shifting perspective with every line and verse, it’s sometimes easy to forget such a song was released in 2014. Cue in CKay’s “WATAWI” and how the once-vulnerable phrase now serves a toxic characteristic, deliberately underplaying a person’s romantic interest. With Ajebutter, there’s a lot more nuance from the masculine perspective, not excusing as much as it portrays the heart’s eternal confusion of choice. “Church Mind” collects the album’s overarching subject matter into a stirring portrait, in sung-rap lyrics imbibed with aspirational currency. “E get many things, aswear I wan yarn, But if I speak church mind they no go like am,” he says in the record’s most revealing lyrics, sketching how he “went pop like oil inside can, when you pour water straight inside am”.
In promotional interviews, the rapper confirmed that ‘Anytime Soon’ was only a prelude to a larger project. True to his words, ‘What Happens In Lagos’ was released in 2017. By this time Ajebutter22 was more known around the country. The Alte movement swaggered with a globetrotting fusion of artistic cultures, catching on from Nigeria and sparking countercultures across Africa. Ajebutter was viewed differently; he was playing the long game after all. His choice sonics wasn’t as eclectic as the likes of Odunsi (The Engine) and Cruel Santino but within three years he had intentionally collaborated with its most influential players, while his corporate-friendly branding brought eyes and ears to a section of what the movement was doing. He is a part of the story as much as anyone else.
Over the past fortnight, a conversation about ‘perfectly created’ songs was engaged online. A prompt: such a simple tool, but when employed right, there’s no telling where reminiscence could take the open mind. On The NATIVE social media handles, we requested for such perfectly created songs from the Alte community. Thousands of people have so far responded, sharing pictures and clips which would have given teary eyes to early-hoppers aboard the Alte train. From obvious choices like “Star Signs” and many cuts off ‘Suzie’s Funeral’ to less-celebrated classics like “Shaken” and “Cash”, it is beautiful to be reminded how colourfully distinct the Alte sound was and continues to be, and a nod to its ominous influence over much of the mainstream Afropop being created today.
In his own way, Ajebutter22 is an OG of the movement. Added to his hit songs and communal dedication, a huge feather on his cap comes from the singularly brilliant ‘What Happens In Lagos’. From top to bottom, a number of well-sequenced songs honestly capture the millennial experience, blending poetic introspection with swanky pop numbers, with features from Odunsi (The Engine) and Maleek Berry to Falz and M.I Abaga helping bring his vision to life. For the most parts though, it’s just Ajebutter and Studio Magic feeding off each other’s energy, curating a journey that is as seamless as it is memorable.
“Good Place To Start” begins with a spoken word from Koromone, sketching the mixed feelings that many Lagosians get from living in the city. “How do I begin the story about a place that can inspire and deflate you at the same time?” she asks over a base of gospel-evoking pianos, “How do I talk about Lagos?” A Yoruba folk spiritual from Mystro propels the angle, the currency of aspiration through which many of its residents live by. On his verses, Ajebutter exudes a zen calm as he relays his motivations, as an artist but mostly as a human. “Put everything on the line,” he raps in a lyric which sets up its other part to deliver on something grandiose, but he finishes instead with the cheeky simile, “like I’m waiting for all my clothes to dry”.
And yet the understatement works. Waiting for one’s clothes to dry can mean anything, especially for an artist whose career still looms in front of him and with so much promise. The album is elsewhere hyperrealist, from the visceral subject-flitting “Dollar Ti Won” to the dramatic scenes aflush in “Rich Friends” and “Bad Gang,” the pre-album single which features Falz. “Wayward” banks off big band-evoking production which also culls in Afrobeat horns, but Ajebutter’s evocation of women has some of the frustrating stereotyping that has marred some of his biggest songs. Alongside Odunsi, he delivers an epic narrative on “Yoruba Boys Trilogy”, going meta when the beat switches thrice, first a head-bopping Afropop-type production, then a sauntering party-ready beat which sounds straight from the eighties and, finally, a Trap-tinged progression.
Among Hip Hop’s most endearing qualities is the tradition of conceptual story arcs, and Ajebutter22 is very obviously a student of that school. From being part of the duo Soyinka’s Afro with his sister, there’s been an unrelenting desire to internalise the external, and to switch it up sometimes by parlaying the intimacies of his own life into more communal ideas. Honestly, I think ‘What Happens In Lagos’ is one of those albums that were massively slept on by the broader bent of mainstream Afropop. In terms of ambition and craftsmanship, it stands as a cult classic, in the tier of Mojeed’s ‘Westernized West African’ and ‘The Royal Niger Company’ by Jesse Jagz, two projects which possess the transcendental awareness of setting while upholding the creator’s individual inclinations.
With his third album ‘Soundtrack To The Good Life’ dropping this Friday, the direction Ajebutter22 is heading towards seems clear enough. The glossy petal-designed cover reflects its potential colourful vibe, while features include pop-leaning spitters (Ajebo Hustlers, Ladipoe, Joey B), sweet-toned singers (Oxlade, KiDi, Jeff Akoh) and talented diaspora-affiliated acts (Kida Kudz, Not3s, Mellissa). Koromone features on the opener “Soft Life Manifestations,” a track which would most likely continue his thread of delivering conceptual openers on his albums. It’s been six years since Ajebutter22 made his last album showing but if anything’s certain, it’s that the Soundtrack boasts the creator’s antecedents of being memorable. He’s done it twice before, and you know what they say: good things come in threes.