From Folk to Pop: The awe-inspiring evolution of Adekunle Gold

How AG Baby has charted one of the most intriguing paths in Nigerian music

Of Adekunle Gold’s evolution, much has been said and written. Although people informed in the workings of Pop music and everyday listeners, to a lesser extent, expect musicians to freshly execute their ideas, few are able to progressively do so. Since the release of his eponymous debut album ‘Gold,’ six years ago, every aspect in the artistry of Adekunle Gold has blossomed, into a flamboyant and calculated presentation. 

Coming off the back of well-received singles, the luscious R&B collaboration with Lucky Daye on Sinner and the Davido-assisted Amapiano-laced blockbuster High,”Catch Me If You Can’ was released on February 4th. Among the slew of exciting music being put out right now, Adekunle Gold’s listenership is cemented, owed to several artistic reasons but mostly for his songwriting which has been nothing short of stellar in recent years. Asides the obvious changes in style, AG’s pen has been the biggest indicator of his sonic development.

His earliest songs basked in innocence as he hadn’t gotten the experiences he would become familiar with as he moved upwards in the world. On Sade,” a Folk-Pop ballad which covered One Direction’s Story of My Life, Adekunle Gold fills the record with dreamy-eyed perspective as he pleads a woman’s hand in marriage. Coasting on indie Rock-inspired strings and the melancholic violin, Gold’s svelte voice swelled and relapsed, and in its Yoruba parts demonstrated the artist’s strengths: taking indigenous traditions into Western styles and vice versa.

Born into the Kosoko royal family of Lagos, he grew up listening to the expansive guitar grooves of Juju maestros, particularly Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade who is listed as a writer on the titular record of ‘Catch Me If You Can.’ These influences permeate the musician’s debut album, detailing stories in the manner of folklore and embellishing them with vivid drumbeating and praise chants.

Adekunle Gold might have been inspired by age-long traditions but he sang about the simple details of life, such as falling in love, being a fool in love, encouraging hard-work as the underlying factor for success, or simply just appreciating nature. This everyday perspective has been explored on varying levels by the likes of 2Face Idibia, Asa, Black Magic and Sound Sultan, and like most of those precursors, Adekunle Gold was an outlier for what was otherwise popular. In the mid 2010s the Wizkid-Davido dichotomy was approaching its peak, and from either camp, boisterous, electronic-generated bangers were pouring forth. Artists like Tekno, Yemi Alade and Mr. Eazi were making some of the most impressionable records in Nigerian music, connecting decades of musical history as they explored Pop and Highlife for modern audiences. A newly-ascendant Kizz Daniel turned bubbly beats from DJ Coublon into romantic bops which won him the Headies Album of the Year over other nominated projects, which included AG’s Gold.’ 

The album was still among the phenomenal debuts of its day. It debuted on #7 on the Billboard World Music Chart, which is telling of Adekunle Gold’s supposed “lane” considering the connotations of otherness associated with the category. Back home, he was praised for his singularity and loved by a wider demography than most of his contemporaries. And although his style was indie-influenced, his affiliation with YBNL and Olamide burnished his street credibility. For a while, this spot seemed comfortable for him. There was no foreseeable reason to switch it up, which is exactly what he did two years later.

Adekunle Gold stretched his vision considerably on About 30, his sophomore offering. Looking back, its cover art was indeed telling: where he was donned in khaki-colored agbada on Gold’ and looking straight at the camera, About 30′ is inverted as it features him sitting on a horse facing sideways—suggesting movement and possibly growth. “I’m not a sucker for genres,” he said to The NATIVE after its release four years ago. “I’m growing, exposing myself to new music, new instruments and new sounds.”

The album featured a wider cast of artists, blending Seun Kuti’s saxophone into the didactic Mr. Foolish and creating a seismic hybrid of eastern and western Highlife with the masterful Flavour on Yo Yo. Across diasporic lines, he formed a creative partnership with the British-Nigerian singer and songwriter Dyo, who delivers stunningly on Down With You. However, the biggest indicator of Adekunle Gold’s evolution came on Damn Delilah,” the album’s fifth track. It is a song about the wrongs perpetuated by one party in a relationship he previously believed to be reciprocal.

His angst bore into the opening line—“To hell with you Delilah, you made me weak and left”—and for the rest of the song, Adekunle Gold depicts the chaos of a mind betrayed, with lyrics like “I use to think you took my breath away/I lied, I was choking on your bullshit”. This was the introduction of dangerous desire to his catalogue. The inspiration is revealed later on the album, where he poetically considers the trappings of Fame,” embracing the familiar route of entertainers who’ve been thrust onto the spotlight. How then does one remain a people’s person without sacrificing the soul of their artistry? This might be implicit suggestion of Adekunle Gold when he sings, “everyone says don’t change but how will I grow?”

Adekunle Gold, by then, was likely recording the songs which made ‘Afro Pop Vol. 1’, released two years later in the midst of a global pandemic. 2020 taught the world to embrace art (especially music) as a personal endeavour, one that lives with the musician long after the media machinery has returned to other concerns. As disclosed in interviews, Adekunle Gold recorded most of Afro Pop Vol. 1′ in his closet which affects a quality of closeness not found in the manifold expressions of About 30′. The simmering sensibility rocks right at the start, on the collaboration with Trinidadian singer Nailah Blackman, whose glossy vocals produced the unforgettable chorus of AG Baby, where she repeatedly sings, “gimme that, gimme that bop/AG Baby, baby don’t stop.” It doesn’t just share electronic music flourishes with the last song of About 30′ (Call On Me), the thematic subjects were linked. On it, Adekunle Gold had sang “call on me if you need somebody” and here he was the next album beginning with a name-calling song. Such subtlety marked the start of Adekunle Gold’s progression from a lovelorn lover to a legitimate hitmaker whose desires are bound to be met, and his image and fashion played a dominant role in that.

While he dabbled in Folk infusions that earned him the ‘alternative’ tag among listeners and blogs of the day, Adekunle Gold also walked the walked and dressed the part. The simplicity of his records were matched by the unassuming nature of his trademark Adiré outfits and beaded jewelry. In place of the sassy braids he wears today, he used to be comb his hair into an afro. The seven months between the releases of “Call On Me” (in July 2018) and “Before You Wake Up” offered the earliest traces of his evolving image. On the former, Adekunle Gold reminisces about being about with a lover on the streets of California, losing her and then making up in the colourful ending scenes of Moye Oyelola’s visual. He stuck to the direction on “Before You Wake Up,” keeping the dyed outfits at bay, rocking patterned shirts or colourful one-piece coats, his designer sunglasses smashing. He references the process when he sings, “I fit change for you/ I fit bad for you; I fit change my style o.”

There’s no doubt the possibilities broadened for Adekunle Gold following his seamless evolution from his first pair of albums to Afro Pop Vol. 1′. However, through it all, his personal life acted as a sort of diluting agent, balancing his growing prowess and showing that, at heart, he’s still the same old ‘Kunle. In early 2019 he married his longtime lover, the artist and music engineer Simi, in a private wedding ceremony in Lagos. Outspoken and funny, both Simi and Adekunle are known to tease and banter themselves on the Twitter timeline, prompting discussions into the haven their home could be. Still, that inner perspective was denied the fans by both musicians, whose first child came a year later. Simi would announce baby Deja on the video “Duduke,” an affectionate record which trended massively in the months after release. 

“Every day,” said AG in an interview, “I think about how I have a job to raise a beautiful queen and in this crazy world that we’re in, you know it’s hard work. I’m grateful to be a girl dad, it’s made me even more aware of how crazy it is to raise a child in this new age so I’m more in tune with everything I need to do to be a responsible dad and a great man at large.” 

This familial background doesn’t just inform Adekunle Gold’s sensitivity (as seen in his intimate letters to his fans and the tour bus experience of Afro Pop’s rollout) to strengthening relationships, it allowed him explore a wider spectrum of emotions across his third album. From the apologetic outlook of “Sabina” to the delicate angst of “Something Different,” the album echoes the complex palette evoked by the Nigerian artist Anthony Azekwoh on the cover of “AG Baby”. Regardless of where he turned, whether it was the overtly sensual nature of Caribbean Pop (“Pretty Girl”), the not-so-humble braggadocio in the style of rappers (“Okay”), the back-and-forth of lovers in an open relationship gone wrong (“Exclusive”), or damning excuses and admitting mortal shortcomings in the Tekno-featuring “Firewood” and closer “My Ex”—Adekunle Gold sounded right at home. His new act was mastered.

In the seventeen months since that album was released, a lot has happened for Nigerian music. After the pandemic inspired an unprecedented level of productivity among artists, the world slowly opened and discovered the vast brilliance of artists from these parts, blurring identity and genre in their creative outputs. The archive of great Nigerian pop moments was massively updated during this time—several albums became global classics, international concert arenas were sold-out in minutes, songs became mainstays after being popularized on social platforms like TikTok and Triller, international collaborations didn’t seem like the novelty they used to be. Musicians were especially intent in growing their images to evolving modern standards. As seen in the case of Tems and CKay, the journey from scenic acclaim to global superstar has been shortened by technological advancements, and nobody wants to miss out on that.                       

‘Catch Me If You Can’ portends Adekunle Gold’s bragging rights for being ahead of the curve. At thirteen songs, the album is in-tune with contemporary preference for brevity. Celebrating his birthday a week before the album’s release, the artist wrote about his joy on having “almost everything he ever wished for” and the album pours with a profound sense of gratitude while simultaneously spelling opulence in a fashion unlike anything Adekunle Gold has done before. His producers are as varied as Spax and TMXO, both responsible for some of the most iconic Rap songs out of the country; he also taps the protean Pheelz and Blaise Beatz, whose “uber” tag has become almost synonymous with an AG song; both Que Beats (“More Than Enough”) and Tay Iwar (“Sleep”) turn in exquisite production streaked respectively with electric and soulful guitar-playing.

Asides the production, the engineering on this album shines with deliberation in regards to movement and sequencing. Each song owns its space, but ultimately contributes to making the album an enjoyable body of work. And though the features are notably international, from the American R&B stars Lucky Daye, TY Dollar $ign and Fousheé; to United Kingdom’s Stefflon Don and the France-based Malian folk singer Fatoumata Diawara (Davido is the only Nigerian feature), Adekunle Gold’s core inspirations remain pan-African. A number of songs are sketched from Highlife-esque sonics, with bright guitars and elemental melodies; of them all, “Selah” is most remarkable, continuing the “Damn, Delilah” arc by taking shots at an old lover. But whereas “Damn, Delilah” saw him reeling from the loss, down and bad, “Selah” exudes more grace in letting one’s source of pain go–he’s not the loser here: “I’ve never loved you less/ Even though you bring me stress/ It makes no sense/ But leaving you na self defense.”

It’s been a consistent journey for AG Baby. He’s come a long way from recording his first song as a teenager, later forming a boy band with his friends. Heck, the dreamy-eyed country balladry of “Sade” feels like lifetimes ago, different from the style and substance of the Adekunle Gold we know today. He’s embarked on what is perhaps the most admirable transition from an indie-leaning act to a pop superstar, becoming the gold standard for what is possible in music and branding.

For someone whose first popular moments came from doing photoshopping himself alongside celebrities, it’s quite monumental witnessing the celebrity Adekunle Gold has become today. At this stage of his ever-sprawling career, a line of his would suffice: “It is what it is.”