Deep Cuts: How “Ariwo Ko,” off his debut album, shows the early confidence of Adekunle Gold

Revealing more to the singer's then even-tempered perception

On the very first day of 2016, at about 10PM, Adekunle Gold sauntered unto the stage at the Landmark Events Centre in an Adire boubou (aka Agbada). Accompanied by an entourage of about a dozen men, the singer was beaming with an ear-to-ear smile. “Sade,” his breakout song had won the Headies award for Best Alternative Song. The acceptance speech was gracious, celebrating that he’d won for a song that was basically a cover and he partly dedicated his win to then fellow YBNL labelmate, Lil Kesh, who infamously lost the award for Next Rated.

What happened next is Nigerian pop lore: YBNL boss went on an expletive-filled tirade in promotion of Kesh, chucking both middle fingers during the nationally telecast award show. It’s probably a little inconsequential now, but revisiting footage of that kerfuffle you’ll see Adekunle Gold gingerly climbing down from the stage shortly after Olamide grabs the mic and everyone else exits via the side of the stage. In hindsight, that split second decision feels like a representation of how much AG differed from his first music family.

For a label founded by a street-bred rapper and, at the time, littered with artists of the same musical inclinations, AG’s clean cut look and folk-indebted sound zagged heavily from the general perception of YBNL. In a way, he was the outlier, a secondary character in the grand scheme of things. It could’ve gone wrong, he could’ve exited in unceremonious fashion, similar to the Headies’ moment of controversy—but, thankfully, it didn’t. That’s where his first album comes in, the rare debut full-length that banks on autonomy and succeeds because of it.

Seven years after its July 28 release, ‘Gold’ still holds up as a dazzling display of measured ambition and meticulous execution. A lot of it is coming of age stuff but, even then, there was a palpable conviction in how Adekunle Gold approached its creation. The colourful grooves of Yoruba Highlife and Juju music as sonic influences were obvious, while the loud vocal melodies of pop-rock inspired his writing and singing; they melded into an identifiable, easily loveable sound. For the most part, AG was the genial guy, the one that runs from a tempting mistress and attempts to use pure charm to escape the friend zone.

For some edge, ‘Gold’ had its moments of irreverence—and I’m using this word relative to the rest of the album. Emblematic of this is “Ariwo Ko,” a sly show of conceitedness and one of the more experimental spots on the project. Without naming names, Adekunle Gold throws direct shade at “noisy” artists, the kind of insult that perfectly captures the popular saying, “if the shoe fits.” “Empty barrel lo ma n p’ariwo,” he sings on the hook, a variation of an insult many young Nigerians have heard while in grade school, when teachers would refer to noisemakers.

Lauded for his uniqueness, AG doesn’t just thumb his nose at the empty barrels, he also uses the opportunity to applaud himself as a gold standard for quality. “Numbers don’t lie and I don’t shout,” he confidently declares at the top of the first verse. Within the same album, it’s aligned with “My Life,” where he pokes at the peering eyes of haters. Like many people who do well at concealing their contempt, the singer shows that he only needs the right amount of annoyance to use choice words. On the song’s second verse, he expresses his disgust at those who use money and political power as tools to step on the people who have less than them, adding a communal layer to his arrogance. “No be only you go make am/ je a gbo’ran ore, who you help oh?” he sings with a slight increase in his voice.

These days, ultra-confidence and modish pop choices are the elements associated with Adekunle Gold. His evolution is one of the most worthwhile narratives in Nigerian Pop, but songs like “Ariwo Ko,” where he embraces his own hubris, is proof that those traits were already part of the AG package. Even Pheelz’s accompanying production is forward-facing, featuring oriental strings and backing vocal harmonies that evoke Bollywood scores. It’s a forebear for stuff like Fireboy DML’s “ELI” and Rema’s affinity for Indian influences.

On the cusp of his fifth studio album, ‘Tequila Ever After’, revisiting AG’s earliest work reveals more to the even-tempered perception almost everyone had of the singer back then. That’s an effect of authentic artistry, giving listeners new things to appreciate about the past while growing forward.

Pre-save ‘Tequila Ever After’ here.