1-Listen Review: Juls’ debut album, ‘Sounds of My World’
An expansive and singular paean to contemporary music in Africa and the diaspora
An expansive and singular paean to contemporary music in Africa and the diaspora
Juls belongs in the vanguard of producers responsible for revolutionising the sound and overarching feel of Afropop. In the middle of the last decade, his work with Mr Eazi was an integral part of the renaissance that adjusted the general tempo of pop music from Nigeria, which in turn influenced large parts of the continent. His highlife-indebted sound, which initially graced many ears via Show Dem Camp’s “Feel Alright,” catalysed experimentation and helped broaden the mainstream’s musical palette.
While this mid-tempo, sophistic-pop side of Afropop has and continues to, successfully mutate, Juls remains dedicated to his neo-highlife sound. That doesn’t mean he’s been stagnant. If anything, he’s been even more inventive, finding new ways to colour within the boundaries of his unmistakable musical identity. Across his delightful catalogue, the British-Ghanaian sound architect has consistently adjusted the expectations of listeners’ expectations from a Juls song without upending the general feel, furnishing his groove-driven approach with a wide and sometimes unexpected range of musical influences, including but not limited to R&B, Caribbean Pop, Road Rap, Folk and Amapiano.
While he’s produced music for artists like Wizkid, Burna Boy, Goldlink, Ko-Jo Cue and more, it’s on his projects—four of them so far—that listeners get to fully immerse themselves in the experimental but familiar realm of Juls’ musical approach. Today marks the release of Sounds of My World, which he’s dubbed his “debut album.” This billing doesn’t insinuate that full-length listens like Leap of Faith and Colour were inconsequential, as much as it raises the stakes for this new project. I’m highly expectant, so let’s get into the music.
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In Usual 1-Listen Review Fashion, All Reactions Are Written In Real-Time While The Music Plays. No Pauses, Rewinds, Fast-Forwards Or Skip.
Beatboxing is an intriguing way to open an album. Whose voice is this? This is that Mr Steal Yo’ Girl voice. “Girl I can be your soul food.” Haha, this is some wholesome macking. The drums and Wiz’s voice just sent me to a dimension of bliss! Fam, this entire intro is an entire flex in combining three different vocal timbres without any dissonance. It’s wild to me that the guy who was raging on Kendrick’s “The Blacker the Berry” is making lascivious records with Juls. (BTW, “Slow Down” is a top 7 Juls record.) Mr. Ayodeji Balogun has way too much swag on wax for me to type out his government, but I don’t care because I just feel so good right now. The instrumental arrangement on this has morphed like three times and it’s all so smooth and profound. Those horns! Jesus Christ, I’m sweating. This is just the intro?! Ha! Instant keeper! I’m even more hype.
Natural ambience. Spoken word poetry is usually so extra to me, and this is no different. I don’t mind it, though, it’s setting a mood that’s consistent with the intro. “Let go and release, this is your moment of peace.” I hear you, man. These log drums are hitting, but those dreamy piano keys are lulling me to bliss. Horns and guitars make everything fuller, they’re cheat codes in hands as talented as Juls’. Jaz Karis is one of those artists I promise to get into every once in a while and I never do, which is a shame because she always wows me whenever I hear that semi-wispy voice of hers. This is no different, she’s floating with ease, so much allure in her writing and performance. Juls and Jaz are making vacation in the ends sound as enticing as going to Mykonos. Didn’t hear anybody say “Music is everything,” SMH. Solid record.
Dusty Amapiano drums! Fuck! This guitar riff has a taste, like biting into some delicious wings on a Sunday morning after church. That’s oddly specific but that’s how I feel right now. Haile’s voice was meant to soundtrack the most gorgeous moments in life, it’s so vibrant and full of joy. I know this is the type of song that will fit into a chill DJ set, but it will fit a lot better in intimate spaces, like watching your partner dancing offbeat. Sweet nothings will forever be corny, because love itself is corny. Solid record, another keeper.
Juls was one of the first non-South African producers to tap into Amapiano, and there’s an inventive respect to the way he approaches using elements from the genre. “Love Me” is no different, pretty solid pre-album single, and the Niniola feature is very on-the-nose but it works really well. Those bursts when the horns come in are just delightful, you can hear it coming but it packs a surprising punch. A lot of Juls’ production work, especially on his own shit, is a bag of tricks. That Vigro Deep-type drum breakdown is another trick. At this point, the song has transformed into something that sounds like he’s folded Amapiano in on itself. This has me dreaming of a link-up between Juls and the Cavemen, their experimentation would probably open another dimension to reality.
This intro skit is funny. I’m tempted to call King Promise’s voice gorgeous, been a minute since I heard his voice sound this ornate. Production here is a little more typical of what you’d expect from Juls, but it still feels very fresh. Joey B’s animated cadence on groovy beats like this is always so great to hear. This somehow feels like a filler song, but it’s weird to say because it does slap. I hope the horn players are getting paid handsomely, the flavour they bring to Juls’ music is nothing short of awe-inspiring. These soundbites are “haha” funny, will be revisiting for them at the very least.
Fireboy over a Dancehall-inspired beat? Yeah, my ears are perched up. A fine woman told Fireboy he would become rich, and now he’s asking her to love him intentionally? LOL. I’ve always been of the opinion that Fireboy is the most solipsistic singer in his class of Afropop stars, I might be unto something. This beat has a neon glow to it, and the groove is quite catchy. I like Fireboy’s melody but I just can’t get into the writing. I don’t ever want to hear this man say “bussit” again. Don’t hate it, but this might be my first skip on this album. Serviceable song at best, to me.
The diaspora connects. The way Juls samples is a masterclass in both collage and texture. These drums need to drop to match the glistening of these piano chords. Ah, yes. That’s the stuff right there, like getting sprayed with cold water during the heatwave. Mannywellz has such a folksy voice, which sounds trite but it is worth constantly mentioning because of the urbane way he tends to use it these days. This is the closest thing to emotive writing on this album so far, a nice change of pace from all the devotional cooing, even though they’ve sounded mostly great. Bas loosened up his flow since Too High to Riot and he’s consistently sounded like a new rapper ever since. Solid verse. I can hear the transition to the next song already, Juls is pulling off some auteur stuff right now. Mannywellz! Take a bow, chief.
This song has some crack in it, can’t convince me otherwise. Probably listened to it like twenty times the weekend it dropped, and that video is the perfect complimentary piece. “Why you talking ‘bout ‘men are trash’? Take time off twitter” makes me laugh every single time. Somehow, I wish Zlatan was on this song, or someone with street pop sensibilities. It just sounds like something that would inspire the next variation of the zanku. Juls hugs that line between minimalism and maximalism with finesse, like this song is literally a piano riff and a percussive beat, but it sounds so full. The melodic centre just shifted and it feels like another dimension within the same song. Ah! Those horns again. The tension between the writing and production is just so good. Great song!
D-O over a Juls beat is not something I ever imagined, but what does Juls look like not pulling surprises? This is somehow so hard and sophisticated at the same time, a trap song executed in Juls’ Highlife-fusion lane. I can tell I will be rinsing this one. D-O raps like the guy who will aggressively poke you in your chest to drive home his point while speaking. This is such a good rap performance, he caught that pocket so well. Guessing this is OTB, he has a nice rap voice. He’s in that same zone as D-O, great pocket and great flow. I’m hype for Love is War. Another D-O verse, Kumasi women love him. This song has no hook, it’s a no-frills rap record that doesn’t necessarily sound like it. Juls has unlocked another angle to his sound.
East Africa connect! For someone who’s listened to a few Sauti Sol albums, it’s appalling that I can’t tell the singers in the group apart. Please don’t revoke my music journalist card – if you do, send for all my non-Kenyan peers while you’re at it. This song has a nice Dancehall bounce to it, but as is often the case with Juls songs, the delight is in the melodic components. As gorgeous as this sounds, it’s a little too wry for me, or maybe it’s this second verse. “Your throne is on my face,” on a Sauti Sol song? I’m actually a bit surprised, they always seem so…pure. That’s the word that came to my mind. Yeah, the guy on this hook is eating. The third verse sounds more like Sauti Sol, very cheesy, and not necessarily in a bad way. But this hook is a highlight of this song, and the entire album even.
Juls went to Cape Verde for this album, too? I’d like to sit with him and just talk about how much music he listens to. This is such a delectable groove, and Mayra Andrade sounds at home. You know what? I’d take a collaborative project from these two, she already veered into contemporary West African sounds on her last album. Didn’t love it too much, partly because I already associate her with a unique sound, but this sounds more fitting. Mayra singing about flowers and plants in her earthy voice is positively invigorating. As sweet as she’s making falling in love sound, I’m just thinking of how tedious it can be to learn and cater to a person’s love language. I guess love requires a lot of effort afterall, the ghetto if you ask me. Beat transitioned and it’s more folksy and more gorgeous.
Gentle guitar strums and log drums, Juls has so many tricks up his sleeves. Xenia Manasseh’s voice makes intimacy sound sacred, she sings like I imagine Aphrodite would sound as a singer. Somehow, this beat has revealed itself to be salsa-twinged, this whole project is a flex of mastery. This is A2, I’m guessing, and he’s bringing all the feels to compliment. Karun! She has one of my favourite voices in Afropop at the moment, it’s just so enchanting. Did Xenia and Karun just do a call-and-response bridge! This entire song sounds like the safest place in the world where you can just be with someone special, not external pressure, just vibes. This rap verse is a cool tonal change, but the raps are a bit dissonant. All that henny and vigorous sex talk just doesn’t merge. Beat switch. Not in love with the way this one ends.
The reunion of Juls and Oxlade, first time around was a treat and there’s an excitement here that looks like they’ll be two for two. This beat is ridiculously good, it clearly follows the template of Juls’ groovy pop records, a fat bass line, tone-setting guitar, and percussion that will get your body swaying. Oxlade’s voice has gone from Wande Coal parody to inimitable. When he hits that helium-tone plane, it’s a trick that never fails to grab your attention. This is one of his more looser showings on wax, he sounds like he’s having fun while singing, without dampening the pining in his lyrics. This is too short, will definitely revisit.
I like this bounce, sounds like something from the ‘90s but filtered through the Juls Highlife-fusion lens. Kojo Funds is pouring his heart out, is this Emo-Afrobeats too? I’m asking a serious question. Hehhh, the beat is doing all the work, I need Kojo to sound like he’s bleeding his heart out to match. Yeah, I spoke too soon. He wants his muse to “shake that.” I don’t get this song, I thought it was going to be more confessional, which is kind of the most Afropop thing ever. Don’t know about this one.
This was the lead single, didn’t do much for me at first but I liked it more with subsequent listens. Reuniting the “True Love” crew without Wizkid is not a bad idea, they both showed out. It’s crazy how Tay Iwar can channel romantic tenderness on other people’s, but revel in messiness on his own songs. Get you an R&B singer-songwriter that can do both, LOL. “I’m not from the city, I’m not used to Angels” is the sort of line that won’t work on many Nigerian women, especially Lagos women. It’s not slander, I’m just saying. Projexx is a nasty man, like the bulk of Dancehall singers. Really good way to close this project.
Juls is a master at his craft. It’s the sort of description that’s been fitting for years now, but on Sounds of My World, there’s a confidence and showmanship underlining just how singular he is as a producer and project curator. The 15-song set is replete with an influx of voices, however, it’s impossible to misconstrue who’s really running the show. That’s not to say he’s despotic in approach, if anything these songs are true joint efforts that find the middle ground between Juls and his collaborators. He simply sets the tone with his genre-mashing and uniquely alluring sound, creating new wheelhouses in the same space that his guests can thrive comfortably in.
While it is marked by familiar tricks and the urban twang of his neo-highlife sound, there’s a keenness to Juls’ musical alchemy on Sounds of My World. He seeks out even more sounds to add to his sonic mosaic, and his instrumental arrangement is at its most fluid and expansive. In his work, Juls has often opted to work along the lines of groovy minimalism, but he’s indulged his maximalist side a little more on this album, tastefully filling spaces with horns and guitars while keeping his music as uncluttered as ever. The range of his collaborators is also a testament to Juls’ wide-ranging ethos, an album where artists as stylistically disparate as Prettyboy D-O and Mayra Andrade co-exist without any dissonance.
Through its many peaks and few serviceable moments, ‘Sounds of My World’ is more than a sum of its parts, a boldly crafted paean to contemporary music in Africa and the diaspora, as helmed and curated through Juls’ unique hands and ears.
Listen to ‘Sounds of My World’ here.
@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.