NATIVE Staff Picks: 20 Songs That Defined Afropop In 2022
Featuring classics from Asake, Kabza De Small, Sampa the Great & more
Featuring classics from Asake, Kabza De Small, Sampa the Great & more
These days, we tend to talk about Afropop’s excellence in relation to its increased global acceptance. It’s inevitable, especially when you consider that it keeps getting bigger and more ubiquitous—a lot of those international props going to Nigerian pop and South African dance music. However, if you are a keen cultural observer, what is perhaps more significant is the fact that a lot more is going on in African music than just the stuff receiving mainstream validation.
The fact is, African music has always been diverse, a cultural scene with dimensions on dimensions of great, creative things happening. With the internet and streaming and social media, the staggering and awe-inspiring scope is visible. At the NATIVE, we’ve consistently improved on our aim of contextually covering the music across Africa, even though the bulk of our newsroom is Nigerian. Arguably our strongest show yet, with regards to this pan-African ethos, are the end of year wrap-up lists we’ve been rolling out.
As one of our final lists, this year’s Best Songs list is a culmination of the songs that were definitive in our coverage of African music. Collectively, we fell in love with a lot of music and discovered even much more music, and this list, arranged in alphabetical order, highlights all of that.
In the year of his entrance into meteoric superstardom, “Peace Be Unto You” is undeniably the song that best encapsulates Asake’s frame of mind. The song, released a few months before the definitive ‘Mr Money with the Vibe’, is a celebration of surmounting obscurity and beating any one-hit wonder charges, as much as it is a self-aware prayer to never slide into a complacency-fuelled falloff. Most consequentially, it’s a crystallisation of the most exciting powers he’s embedded across his best songs: It has the molten rap-infused cadence of “Palazzo,” the spiritually-inclined clarity of “Trabaye” and “Dull,” as well as the confident clarity of “Ototo.” Simply put, “PBUY” is the brightest gem yet in Asake’s catalogue.
Dennis Ade Peter
[Read More: NATIVE’s Issue 005 Cover, Asake’s Time]
In the lead up to the release of the deluxe version of her debut album ‘19 & Dangerous,’ Mavin Records’ Ayra Starr unlocked three tracks: “Ase,” the remix of “Bloody Samaritan” with Kelly Rowland and “Rush.” On the last of the three, helmed by Andre Vibez, the singer produces a bouncy cut establishing her star status. Tapping into the Nigerian zeitgeist of seeking God-ordained favours, the song is as much a prayer and celebration for the listeners as it is for Ayra Starr.
Following the star-heralding success of “Second Sermon” in 2021, Ghanaian artist Black Sherif started this year with the Joker nharnah-produced “Kwaku the Traveller.” Around that time, the artist was facing backlash in his home country for dropping his previous manager and signing with EMPIRE. Black Sherif used “Kwaku the Traveller” to address his imperfections and vulnerabilities while still retaining a chest-thumping oomph in the track. The lyric line, “Of course I fucked up/Who never fuck up hands in the air,” was an instant winner, reminding both artist and listener that making mistakes is human but owning up to those mistakes is divine.
2022 will always be remembered as the year Burna Boy made the world sing out loud to a breakup anthem. “Last Last,” the singer’s uber-hit single off his 8th studio album is a masterclass in hit-making, packed with relatable lyrics, familiar Nigerian references and delectable production helmed by Chopstix. Chopped over a sample of Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough,” Burna Boy covers the misfortune that comes with longing for someone who’s heart can’t be trusted. While taking a significant period of his life and shaping it into music, he sets the record straight–everybody chops breakfast but life goes on with the right vices.
[Read More: Burna Boy reinforces his superpower with “Last Last”]
There is always something cheeky with Chris Kaiga and his music, which primarily speaks to the Gen Z mass in East Africa. In his normal laid back delivery, he whipped out the club anthem “Kengele,” an ode to party lovers. His ABC rhyme scheme has a surprisingly nice appeal to the ear as the guitar riffs continuously refrain creating an upbeat melody. His hand in promoting Kenyan music with the debe genre has been significant and has earned him a cult following in the region. “Kengele” is a signature single, a party playlist song inching towards evergreen status.
For his sophomore album, ‘Subaru Boys: FINAL HEAVEN,’ Cruel Santino enlisted a slew of guest vocals including household names like Koffee, Skepta, Amaarae and even Gus Dapperton. However, making a standout performance on the project’s intro was newbie to the scene, Brazy. Pairing perfectly with Santi’s eccentric vocals and futuristic sounds, Brazy delivers a clutch performance on “Maltilda,” allowing her colourful puns and airy, melodious vocals shine over the track’s heavy baseline.
There are few vocalists in Amapiano with a voice as magnetic as Daliwonga. After anchoring Tyler ICU and DJ Maphorisa’s 2021 runaway ‘piano smash, “Izolo,” the singer opened this year with dazzling show of his power, teaming up with premier Bacardi-Amapiano producer duo Mellow & Sleazy for “Abo Mvelo.” Leaning into the grittier side of his voice, Daliwonga sounds like a man possessed by his own hubris—but in the most enticing way possible. Complimenting the snap of his melodies, M.J’s sing-rap flow emboldens the overall badassery on display.
Don’t let dndSection’s newfound reputation as a rabble rouser in a rap beef distract from the plain fact that he’s a dynamic artist capable of making any type of rap song he wants to. On one of his best songs yet, “Imagine That”, he goes full-on Nigerian pop-rap, buoyantly weaving across a log drum-heavy production. “I too sabi pass anybody for this life and spiritual/they couldn’t kill me even if they wanted to,” he states at the top of the song with a melodic flow, setting the tone for an exuberant song that packs ultra-confidence without slacking off on catchiness.
Who begins an album with an eight-minute song? You know who—it could only be ‘Piano’s prolific genius, the ever-exciting Kabza De Small. “Khusela” is an earthy record which doesn’t burden itself with the aspirations of its scope. It’s rather executed with an almost shoulder shrug, each percussive rhythm placed with loose intent while retaining its role in the grander set-up. The usage of soulful keys is deliberately maximalist, complementing the grit of its other accompaniments with graceful lightness.
Featuring the evocative vocals of Msaki, there’s an unmistakable mood of prophecy it gives off. When you’re at the top of the game as long as Kabza has been, there’s a tendency to align with epic ideas. “Khusela” translates to ‘Protect’ in Zulu, and throughout ‘KOA II’ Kabza’s vision for the genre is clear: he means to protect its cultural edge, while furthering its place within the global Dance and electronic conversation.
[Read More: See Kabza De Small’s ‘KOA II Part 1’ at the top of NATIVE’s Best Dance projects of 2022]
Sonically, the scope of Lady Aicha & Pisko Crane’s Original Fulu Miziki of Kinshasa’s ‘N’Djila Wa Mudujimu’ is expansive and tightly woven. One of the best examples is “Tikanga.” On the song, the group deploys their made-from-trash musical instruments to produce an intense and unflinching bass, which they support with bells, mechanic-driven elements and boisterous chants. “Tikanga” is the group’s punk-inspired iteration of Congo’s soukous and a representation of the incredibly exciting sound.
[Read More: Best Dance & Electronic projects of 2022]
Among listeners of contemporary South African rap, the name MashBeatz is a familiar one. First building his profile from working with A-Reece, the Limpopo native has become a producer known for his excellence as much as his prolific nature. This year, though, he reached another level of cultural significance with May’s “NEVER RIDE,” a year-high for the scene which features the skilled duo of Maglera Doe Boy and Thato Saul. Over swirling violins and Trap drums, the rappers unite as twin swords, cutting through pockets of space with the graceful efficiency of a ninja. Sending detailed threats to opps is a familiar subject in rap but the understated menace of the verses is amplified by the salsa-evoking liquidity of MashBeatz’s production. When paired with the laser-sharp focus on their ambition, the record’s appeal emerges more vividly.
[Read More: See Thato Saul & Maglera Doe Boy’s solo albums on NATIVE’s Best Rap projects of 2022]
Arriving in the summer of 2022–a monumental return to live performances and concerts was NATIVE Sound System’s debut compilation album, ‘NATIVEWORLD,’ a sharp cut of 15 songs framed through a weather-based conceptual arc. “Stuck On You,” the airy number performed by one of the year’s most consistent acts, Ayra Starr, DAP the Contract and LMBSKN is tailor-made for summer BBQ’s and dancefloors alike. Ayra and DAP glide across the teardrop guitar-licked production and dance-infused instrumental, with silk croons and alluring melodies reminding listeners that the dance lives on.
[Read More: Our first impressions of ‘NATIVEWORLD’]
Melancholy is often the vehicle driven by Obongjayar on his journey to catharsis, but fun can be credible as any device. He proves this on “Sugar,” the catchiest song on ‘Some Nights I Dream of Doors’. Built from the ribs of groovy percussion and ethereal flute-playing in the background, it’s a call to strength and splendour. If the album sees him plunging the reality of dreams for a satisfactory ending, this record comes as a sort of interlude, the brief escape from everything that bears heavy on the soul. And who better to curate such emotions? In a heartfelt lyric, he mines autobiographical detail for illumination. “Who thought the boy from Atekong would make it this far?” he asks in a triumphant tone, the production’s weight stripping away when he says, “I took my pain and turned it into sugar”.
[Read More: Obongjayar has been Dreaming of Doors]
Out of the multitude of music performances by Nigerian singers on the German-owned A COLORS SHOW this year, Oxlade’s “KU LO SA” instantly caught the ears of the world. Powered by the Nigerian singer’s velvety vocals and passionate delivery, the song’s romantic pleas dug its tentacles into the hearts of listeners, spurring millions of streams and fan videos. While Oxlade’s unique qualities have been present since he debuted on the airwaves, “KU LO SA” is his shining moment and the starting point for his journey toward global prominence.
[Read More: How Oxlade’s “Ku Lo Sa” is taking over our airwaves]
Decidedly a feel-good track, “Breakfast in Soweto” is a standout number off Prince Kaybee’s 5th studio album, ‘Gemini’, for a plethora of reasons, including the celebration of its ethereal strings, clean-cut production and other-wordly vocal assistance from Ben September and Mandlin Beams. The euphonious record provides a warm perspective of a classic love story, as the pair express their appreciation for the more mundane aspects of life, over the track’s hypnotic chord arrangements. The iconic log drums and shakers commonplace in Afro-house couldn’t have shone any brighter as they did on this track.
[Read More: See Prince Kaybee’s ‘Gemini’ on NATIVE’s Best Dance Projects of 2022]
Rema’s debut album ‘Rave & Roses,’ was one of the most anticipated Afropop albums of the year. Arriving without delay at the end of March, the 16-song set was a fine showcase of Rema’s ability to present a vibrant mosaic of music from deep melodic cuts to hyper-frenzy trap and plaintive R&B. On standout single “Addicted,” the crowned Prince of Afropop glides over the intoxicatingly jovial production of close collaborator, London as he shoulders the weight of heightened visibility and even higher expectations. “You’re addicted to the lifestyle, please baby can you take it slow,” he sings against the song’s otherworldly production which disguise its alarming lyrics.
[Read More: NATIVE’s Issue 005 cover, Rema, Still Divine]
Sampa The Great is always looking for new ways to expand her palette and sonic offerings. Releasing her album ‘As Above, So Below’ the adroit musician touches on being back in Zambia and celebrating her African roots. Standout track “Never Forget” reverently taps into Zamrock, the patent blend of psychedelic rock and traditional Zambian music popularised in the 1970s. On the delightful song, Sampa pays homage to Zambian artists, and African heritage in general, a celebration of the forebears who paved the way for the present, while also acting as a declaration that the rap artist is here to further that lineage by being as true to herself as she can.
SuperJazzClub might be alternative culture’s best kept secret, but not for long. Sooner than later more people will catch onto the groundbreaking work the Ghanaian indie collective are doing; from musicians to fashion designers, photographers and filmmakers, they have it all. “MAD” was their first release of the year, a fun-tinged record whose melancholic production captures the tension in its centre. Adapting rap cadences to paint depictions of a party, the vocals wouldn’t sound out of place on an alt-rap/alt-pop project like Santi’s Subaru Boys, which is saying something of its fatalistic sensation. Yet there’s much more to its layers, an ingenuity which unfurls stark poetry such as “Open, swinging all the doors and let the hoes in,” as a member of the collective sings in the first verse, “Grudges on the ice, I keep it frozen”.
Off her debut extended play, ‘Red Dragon,’ “Tanzania” is not just the lead single for the 4-track Amapiano project but the first show of the superstar DJ’s outstanding skills and expertise beyond the deck. Making a debut on one of the biggest online music broadcasting and promotional platforms in the world, Boiler Room, “Tanzania” enlisted the sonorous vocals on some of the scene’s key players, Sino Msolo and BoiBizza, for an undeniably intoxicating, heart-thumping rendition.
[Read More: See Uncle Waffles at the top of NATIVE’s Best New Artists of 2022]
After collaborating on their 2021 single Amapiano-rap fusion hit, “Sho Boy”, Venom and Shishiliza strengthened their partnership as song curators with “Sondela,” bringing together the all-star cast of Yumbs, Raspy Blxckie, the late Riky Rick and Tshego, to create a serene atmosphere that roots for love. Interpolating Jeniffer Lopez’s smash hit “If You Had My Love,” there’s a combination of soulful croons and a rapped verse from Riky Rick over a buttery Amapiano-R&B beat, doubling as a gentle slap fit for slow dancing and a love song that scores a tranquil moment.
[Read More: See Venom & Shishiliza’s ‘Love is Pain’ on NATIVE’s Best R&B Projects of 2022]