Four takeaways from Angelique Kidjo’s ‘Mother Nature’

Features Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi & more

Angelique Kidjo is African music royalty and a global music icon. About three decades ago, the Beninese singer, songwriter and producer made her major-label debut with Logozo’, a classic album that’s fundamental to the contemporary bridge between music made by Africans and the rest of the world. Commandeered by her equal parts agile and siren-like voice, the searing merger of traditional Folk rhythms with Disco’s shininess prioritised her African identity, while putting it in conversation with a world that was on a slow and steady track to globalisation.

Long before Afropop to the World became a rallying cry, Angelique Kidjo had been exporting music heavily influenced by both her Beninese roots and pan-Africanist curiosity. Constantly innovating and consistently captivating, with an unyielding dedication to presenting the continent in its regality and infinite potential, her sprawling discography is a treasure trove of invigorating numbers. For her excellence, Ms. Kidjo has won four Grammys for Best World Music Album, the most by an artist in that category.

As accomplished as she is, there are no signs that Ms. Kidjo will be slowing down anytime soon. Earlier this month, the revered artist put out her thirteenth studio album, Mother Nature’. It includes previously released singles, “Dignity” and “Africa, One of a Kind,” featuring Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi, respectively. The album also houses eleven new songs, with guest appearances from Burna Boy, Sampa the Great, EARTHGANG’s Olú, and more. Here are a few takeaways from the album on the first few listens.

Less reimagining, more originals

Angelique Kidjo’s last two albums were cover projects—with a twist. In 2018, she reimagined Remain in Light, the classic album by British Rock band Talking Heads. Released in 1980 and produced by Brian Eno, a self-proclaimed Fela admirer, the album was partly inspired by Afrobeat and African rhythms, an influence Ms. Kidjo excavates and puts on full display on her cover album of the same title. The next year, she followed with the Grammy-winning Celia, a compilation of cover songs by legendary salsa singer Celia Cruz, also heightening the African influences that were a part of the Cuban trailblazer’s music.

On Mother Nature’, however, Ms. Kidjo is almost entirely back to curating “new” music. The only pseudo-cover track on the album is “Africa, One of a Kind,” the pre-released single which heavily samples “Africa” by Salif Keita, and features Mr Eazi and the Malian legend himself. At that, Kel P’s production is masterful enough to stand out, even though the song doesn’t entirely escape the shadow of its source material. Generally speaking, the musical choices on the album are constantly stellar, piecing together an eclectic fabric with threads from Afropop, Folk, EDM, Hip-Hop, Afrobeat, and more. With about a dozen contributors behind the boards—a transatlantic cast that includes James Poyser, Rexxie, Kel P, Blue Lab Beats and more—Mother Nature’ benefits from Angelique Kidjo’s preference for collaboration.

A voice for the ages remains commanding as ever

There’s no mistaking the distinct timbre of Angelique Kidjo’s voice. With a long line of highly ubiquitous songs, including “Wombo Lombo,” “We We” and “Agolo,” the Beninese singer has one of the most recognisable voices in African music till date. It’s one of those voices that can equally squeal and bellow, and in the same breath send chills down your spine and shake the very foundation of a room. Her voice is still in premium shape on her latest offering, serving as a commanding force with a singular edge in both visceral appeal and clarity.

On the bracing title track, she sings over Kel P’s thrumming bassline with an encouraging emphasis that keeps the song’s messaging from being overbearing. For the most part, she leans into the refined power of her singing, and she’s able to perfectly project whatever emotion is required. On “Omon Oba,” arguably the best song on the album, she conveys pure, unadulterated joy in being of African heritage, which she believes is inherently royal. The Burna Boy-assisted “Do Yourself” is primarily led by the Nigerian singer, but it’s Ms. Kidjo’s blaring backup vocals that pushes the song into unforgettable territory—an example of how magnetic she is on an album with multiple visiting voices.

In conversation with a younger generation of Africans

Guest features were never a predominant part of Angelique Kidjo’s albums. While she’s always been highly collaborative on the musical side, Ms. Kidjo’s voice is almost always the exclusive vocal component, except in the rare cases that include Alicia Keys, John Legend, Diane Reeves, and a handful of others. She breaks the mold on Mother Nature’, which features a whopping 11 vocal guests, comprising African artists and a few from the diaspora. Throughout the album, she merges quite strongly with her guests, all—except Salif Keita—of whom are from a younger generation.

In the album’s Apple Music liner notes, she’s quoted as saying: “You don’t invite somebody to have dinner with you to tell them, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t eat that now.’ You offer the food and they do what they want with it.” That ethos greatly benefits the collaborative efforts on Mother Nature’, taking account of the featured artists’ strengths without dampening Ms. Kidjo’s essence. Inspired by last October’s End SARS protests, defiant lead single “Dignity” is a Yemi Alade duet that finds both singers snapping at societal injustices and proffering a solution with the popular adage, “Respect is reciprocal.” On “Omon Oba,” she’s joined by Beninese singers Zeynab and Lionel Loueke, who are in harmony with her elation.

The collaborations are as much about complementing, as they are about contrasting. Zimbabwean-American singer Shugundzo appear on two tracks, the acoustic intro song “Choose Love” and streaking EDM cut “Meant for Me,” her wispy voice adding subtle yet profound embellishments to Ms. Kidjo’s resounding singing. On the romance-themed “Take it or Leave it,” Olú, one-half of Dreamville’s Earthgang, adds an enthusiastic rap verse. Zambian-born Sampa the Great joins the proselytising of “Free & Equal,” putting in a typically stellar shift that exemplifies just how much of a generational conversation Mother Nature is.

Continued optimism for a pan-African Utopia

Even with her global acclaim, Angelique Kidjo’s commitment to Africa is unquestionable. In 1983, she was forced into political exile due to her stance against a brutal, Marxist-Leninist regime, a true marker of how long she’s been committed to social justice. Nearly four decades later, and there hasn’t been any drastic positive change. Instead of being embittered or coming across as jaded by the lack of change, Mother Nature indicates a renewed hope in Africa from Ms. Kidjo. Throughout the album, she sings like the only acceptable outcome is a continent that will be enabling to all of its inhabitants, rather than the select few that continue to gain at the expense of the few.

On the penultimate song, “One Africa (Independence Cha-Cha),” she invokes the memories of Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela, all pan-African icons for their dedication to making their countries—and the entire continent—better places, until their deaths. As much as it’s a cry for help, the song is also a prayer for the emergence of similar-minded leaders for the current generation of youth and those coming after them. Mother Nature’ is wilful in its belief, which makes the preachy passages come across as invigorating, and the admonishments on songs like “Choose Love” and “Mother Nature” feel like the warm advice of a caring aunt.

Listen to Mother Nature here.

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.