NATIVE Exclusive: Chike is telling relatable stories, one great song at a time
"Brother's Keeper is a state of mind; it's the state of mind in which I recorded my music"
"Brother's Keeper is a state of mind; it's the state of mind in which I recorded my music"
2020 was the year of the booless. At most, it was for the Nigerian audience who primarily got introduced to Chike Ezekpeazu Osebuka during what was also the year of the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Boo of the Booless’, the singer’s debut album, arrived on the celebratory St. Valentine’s Day, on February 14, and slowly but surely, many people caught up to its riveting, poignant messages of love, hurt, heartbreak, fatality, divine help, and forgiveness, among others.
Arriving last week, ‘The Brother’s Keeper’ is Chike’s sophomore album. In the past two years, ‘BOTB’ has become a cult favourite while Chike has shown the ability to naturally extend momentum. He’s rested his acclaim on the strength of Simi-assisted “Running”, the romance-suffused collaboration with Fiokee and Ghanaian songstress Gyakie on “Follow You”, and earlier this year in May, the Dunnie-hosted “Already Won” and “Hard To Find” following shortly after, an Highlife-inflected summer-esque bop featuring the iconic Flavour. Along with his ‘Dance of the Booless’ spin-off (which refixed songs from ‘BOTB’ through the EDM soundscape), a shared quality permeating these records is the humane lyricism of Chike and his vocal range.
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“After the first album, I definitely knew I was going for a second album,” says Chike to The NATIVE some days before the release of ‘The Brother’s Keeper’. “So, I just started recording as much as I could, I knew there would come a time when we would have to make a selection, and that time came”.
Chike is always creating—three years ago, he wrote the earliest-recorded song on the album. Because Chike is always in his creative process, his music embodies a unique spirit that is formed by lived-in experiences, his imaginative qualities, and an eye, always, for stories. These are peculiarities in his music, and ‘The Brother’s Keeper’ advances that vision.
The album title references the famous Biblical phrase which was said by Cain, as told in the book of Genesis, when God asked after his younger brother Abel. “I do not know,” the hard-hearted Cain had replied, “am I my brother’s keeper?”. “I understand it having a male undertone,” he says of my suggestion that the album was catering to his male section of fans, just like the previous had done for women.
He, however, had simpler motivations. “I think a lot of people would have expected ‘Love on the Sky,’ or ‘A Day in Paradise’. But then Brother’s Keeper as much as it seems like it has a male undertone, that’s the theme. I keep saying that ‘Brother’s Keeper’ is a state of mind; it’s the state of mind in which I recorded my music, you know, what’s going on in my life, the new state of life for me. That’s what [the album] is”.
Chike is very deliberate about the surrounding details of each project he puts out, and ‘The Brother’s Keeper’ is no different. Even though his titles are sometimes birthed from inspiration, his team comes in to offer counterpoints and fine-tuning. “Inspiration is not really wrong, but you also have to make sure it falls in place with where you’re trying to be at that time,” he says to me now. “But, you know, when you create things, whatever you create, your mind starts forming towards that.”
In terms of collaboration, sparse is a word that describes Chike. On ‘BOTB,’ he featured just M.I. Abaga, Ric Hassani and Zoro; while on ‘TBK’, he collaborates with Flavour, Ycee, and South African singer Azana. “Three is a lot, to be honest,” he says, alluding to the number of guests he’s had on both albums. “My guys and me, we put the music first. We don’t do collaborations because we want to, but because it’s needed, or because it might elevate the music. When you strike a balance between that and actually collaborating, you find out you don’t do too many collaborations.”
The recording process is even more seamless. And even more so on ‘The Brother’s Keeper’, whose lush, colourful soundscape was majorly provided by Deeyasso and Killertunes. Other producers include Louddaaa, Tee-Y Mix, Lord Sky, Echo The Guru, and Saszy. “It’s a small world o—Baba how far, where you dey? I wan’ make music o; e no dey long pass that one,” he says humorously when I ask about how he links up with producers, then chipping in like some aged philosopher, “Some people find it harder to make time, some people find it easier, but it depends on what you want and what you’re willing to chase.”
Such wisdom is found across ‘The Brother’s Keeper,’ but it’s held more intimately and expressed in the nerve-touching songwriting Chike has mastered throughout his career. The album opens with “On The Moon”, a punchy record with audible influence from Amapiano’s dusty log drums. It’s also indicative of Chike’s stretching vision: whereas ‘BOTB’ began with the sombre however admonishing notes of “Beautiful People”, here he’s a bolder, richer superstar, painting a suggestive scene in the second verse which begins with, “I got my ride already, the one I told you about” and ends with “You no fit see my sugar low”.
That record and “My Africa”, which expresses the desire to go continent-exploring with a love interest, are the only exceptions in a thread that runs through ‘The Brother’s Keeper’. Elsewhere, Chike creates records with great amounts of tension. He charts the progression of a relationship from bliss to destruction, even though red flags stood every way of that journey. On songs like “Spell” and “Bad”, the toxic markings in a relationship are conjured with piercing vulnerability and humorous admittance. Though the sound behind the former is muted and poignant, the latter’s groove is folded into the cherry swing of Chike’s vocals as he sings, “Don’t tell me to leave my baby/ I no fit do am, I no get that kind mind”.
The album’s second half carries the weight of crumbling things. Being an actor, Chike is able to switch characters with all the required nuance and tone. It’s also in this category where his formal training in Soul and R&B come to the fore. Going through the motions of a heartbreak, he’s alcohol-thirsty on “Pour Me A Drink”, tear-inducing repentant on “You Deserve”, self-affirmative on “Enough”, and finally acceptant on “Moving On”.
YCee’s verse on the trio’s middle track is a career high, delivered in accessible but emotive lyricism, and rapped with a druggy exhaustion that advances the pathos of Chike’s own singing. “Enough” is a personal favourite, a masterpiece of a song which explores the pain of having a lover who craves the thrill of the unknown. “I put on the light in me, hoping that one day you’ll see,” he sings over stripped percussion and bluesy chords, and later on joined by the reverberations of background vocals.
Chike’s renown as a vocalist is well charted, but even less is known about his upbringing. It’s a formative part of him the musician carries carefully, and that has allowed him the licence to craft the morally complex stories in his songs. Being from Onitsha, the artist was born into the Igbo storytelling tradition. An aunt used to tell him and his siblings bedtime stories. “Most of them were scary ones, because I think she wanted to scare us to sleep,” he says, laughing. “She always wanted us to close our eyes. They were stories, it was mostly Aunty Oge who told us stories to be honest. I didn’t read much; I wouldn’t say I read the novels and the rest because I just felt like, growing up, education was always made to look like a chore. Parents and teachers did it the best they knew how, I guess, but I started paying more attention to stories when I grew older, maybe in my late teens. And right now, I pay way more attention to it.”
Listening to Tracy Chapman made Chike love telling stories, he says, mentioning his early influences: Usher, Neyo, Styl Plus—the legendary Nigerian group which has served as a sonic touchstone for many R&B-leaning acts since the late 2000s to this present day. In his older days, he picked up on the work of British singer-songwriter Passenger, whose emotionally charged songs are closely modelled in the folksy tunes of Chike.
You’ll hear all those influences on the last three songs on ‘TBK’, even though Chike’s originality never comes under siege. Brooding keys are paired with Trap-esque drums on “God Only Knows” as Chike bemoans the betrayal of a close friend, repeatedly belting the words, “I didn’t know you want am for yourself” in an audibly pained tone. The project’s melancholy peaks on “Nothing Less, Nothing More”, a song that catches you off guard with its haunting perspective, imbibed with the ultimate sorrow of losing a loved one. A solo piano flows over the song’s terrain: a soft landing for hard memories.
Alternative is a word often used to describe Chike. A number of things are indicative of the possible reason: his previous participation in acclaimed singing competitions MTN Project Fame and Nigerian Idol in 2015 and 2016, respectively. His tinkering with R&B and string-based folk music. His privacy as a person. His love-heavy themes. Artists like Tay Iwar, Johnny Drille, Bez Idakula, and Ric Hassani are some names in this conversation, but I think Chike is the one who leans into pop music the most.
His producers have adapted the electric allure of Highlife into records “Amen” and “Watching Over Me”, while “Roju” was positively received by prospective partners, blaring at weddings across the country last year. Also sharing in this vision are the records “Good Things” and “Hard To Find” which finds a natural alliance in Flavour, and features the sugary Igbo-inflected singing both musicians are famed for. ‘The Brother’s Keeper’ is very calculated, balancing all these qualities with an experiential, personal grasp.
When I asked Chike the most personal of the songs, he chose the album’s last song, “Please”. He says, “You know the beginning of the album says I’m on the moon, I feel like I’m touching the sky, finally things are working out for me. That thing I told you I wanted yesterday, I’m getting it now; feel like there’s no limit. And for ‘Please,’ I was just saying I hope at the end of everything, that I don’t end up empty-handed, that I have something to show for [all] the popularity, the life, the fame, the art. That in my quiet time, at the end of it all, it’s all worth it.”
Featured image credits/NATIVE