Review: Crayon’s ‘Trench to Triumph’
A celebratory endeavour with moments of stark humanity and vulnerability
A celebratory endeavour with moments of stark humanity and vulnerability
On the cover for his debut album ‘Trench to Triumph’, there is a portrait of a group of children playing football, and a few others watching. The number 7 imprinted on the back of a jersey tagged “Crayon” says something of the musician’s first love–football. Now, however, he recedes from the attention, his figure in all-black as a wooden cross looms above. The building structure, the zinc sheets and the topography of the sand—it’s a setting well established in popular culture, the kind commentators would likely refer to as trenches.
Through his foray as a pop star, Crayon’s music hasn’t necessarily beenxz affiliated with this demography. He rather upturns their experiences through the dreamy eyes of someone climbing up the social ladder. Sounding much like the bright colours associated with his moniker, high-energy bops and skin-revelling dance makes up the artist’s defining traits. In that way, he’s been a patron saint of the vibe, more closer to the hopeful imagery of Zinoleesky than the stark visions of early Bella Shmurda.
Still, Crayon is his own man. That much was clear when he entered the scene with ‘Cray Cray’, the six-track EP which revealed his sunny melodies baked in everyday storytelling. It was 2019, a year symbolic in Nigerian Pop, if not for its continued incursion into global spaces then at least for its emerging youngsters. Among artists like Mavin Records label mate Rema, Fireboy DML and Amaarae, the fresh-faced Crayon seemed a less-orchestrated attempt at crafting a superstar, making records like “So Fine” and “Gock Am” ring out with the feet-stopping allure of something you’ve heard before, forcefully capturing your attention until you were soaked in its cherry quality.
The years since have brought good tidings for the artist born Charles Chibueze. From that initial fine stroke, his career has measured up to a collection of progressive colourful moments, the deep-hued expectations he carried petering out with balance, lighter and legitimate. From the narrative framing of its title, ‘Trench To Triumph’ carries the mark of Crayon’s journey. No longer can he be considered that wunderkind signed through Mavins’ extensive scouting system; he’s struck out on his own, growing though he is, but confident enough to throw creativity and intent behind a debut album, which is typically scrutinised by the public with the incisive gaze of a scientist.
Early into the album, Crayon unfurls his vision. “Call me calvary, cos I’ve fought so many wars,” he sings amidst the atmospheric quality of humming voices and dramatic sonic flourishes, army-type drums and brooding synths. “Calvary Kid” falls into the style of introspective album openers, with the message, and not much of Crayon’s voice, contributing to its allure. On “Trench Kid,” his individuality emerges more vividly, with urgent strings and heartbeat-evoking percussion forming the production. “I remember 2015 oh, I was depressed oh/ I was a broken crayon, I still dey colour,” he sings with obvious triumph, mapping the geographies behind his ascension. Meant to inspire, the feature of Oxlade is a fine choice, his falsetto melding soothingly into the dulcet evocation of Crayon.
Crayon’s opening movement tears the bandage from the scars of his formation. If every trench kid is a physiology of false starts and finally finding redemption, it’s a philosophy Crayon allies with. However, it’s not one he expressively relays throughout his debut. The triumph is the focus. It takes the other side of the thirteen track affair for that perspective to again emerge, on “Modupe.” Even then, tales of “barneys wey I reckless” are rendered with one eye on the future, with crowd vocals employed in amplification of its effervescence. There’s little to fault Crayon by; those who’ve lived in the trenches, the real trenches, do not glory over its gore, rather they are appreciative of the fact they made it out, able to tell its stories and give thanks as Crayon does here.
If anything, Crayon’s songwriting reaches palpable highs throughout the album. As B-side cuts like “Bamiloke” and “In Sync” off the ‘Twelve A.M’ project have revealed, the Ojo Town-raised artist has always possessed a flair for the dramatic, which is revealed in deceptively simple phrasing, but always framed with the ingenious mischief of an insider. “What shall it profit a man, wey God bless with money/ You dey stingy for your life oh,” he sang on the former, the first line of the quoted lyric indelibly blended into a popular Bible passage, but delving at the last second, trickling onto the sphere of everyday Nigerian living. “She talk say I dey give am,” he sings on the latter, the sensual intent folded into the words themselves, so that he says a lot without saying too much.
Such phrasing comes alive again on “Wetin Go Be,” the penultimate song in the album. It’s an inspired dash of culminating experiences, obviously with his present figure as a superstar at the visible side of the narrative coin. Crayon sings about the imminent quality of life’s events, but he shares nothing of the rapper’s tendency to reside within that perspective. He’s rather like the everyday youngster one comes across on the street, bleary eyed but optimistic, with the hope of a better hand than life has dealt them so far. “As my face show, make my shoe shine oh,” he sings in the first verse, obviously seeped in the sphere of prayer while his tone retains its trademark honeyed quality.
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Crayon flips the narrative coin on album closer “Good Day,” an ostensibly positive song which encapsulates the triumphant ethos of the tape. With the melodious grooves of Highlife guitars and warm drums building around him, he charts the grass-to-grace tale Nigerian culture has come to love through mediums like film and music. “Everyday is a good day, when money dey” he sings with the philosophical clarity of Aristotle, and the famous dramatic sequence (beginning, middle, end) often accorded to the Greek maverick is present here.
If the trench is the beginning, and triumph is the end, what then makes up the expansive landscape of the middle? For Crayon, it is love. Beneath the energetic showing on obviously pop-tilted songs like “Ijo (Laba Laba)” and “The One (Chop Life),” there’s a more sensitive Crayon, a version of him where the world and all its material heft strips away. On ‘Trench to Triumph’ one hears some of the best love-themed records in Nigerian Pop this year.
The effervescent Ayra Starr features on “Ngozi,” turning in one of her strongest guest verses in a career glittering with them. From Lojay (“Runaway”) to Iyanya (“Call”) and Magixx (“Love Don’t Cost A Dime [Re Up]”), the ‘19 & Dangerous’ star has consistently showcased her awareness for duets, her luscious vocals embracing the fullness of experience, meeting her male co-stars halfway. Again proving herself amongst afropop’s elite songwriters, her verse reaches several highs, from the image of running to her lover in a panamera to the “wetin you put for this your jollof”, the switch in language matched by a switch in tempo. On “Ngozi” Crayon is the perfect host, sounding very direct while retaining the breezy candour a record like this requires. “Craving your nsala oh”, meanwhile, continues in the exciting ways Afropop artists are learning to describe sex, making the similarly head-spinning pleasure of food a worthy, nearby metaphor.
On “Belle Full,” it is Victony who sets the ball rolling with his divinely-pitched vocals. Released as a pre-album single, its Old Nollywood-inspired cover had spurred widespread conversation on social media, with users eagerly tracing the visual impact of that industry on contemporary creators. To the producer KTIZO’s credit, the song does sound like a jolt from the past, with electric touches to the synths matching the upbeat and simple direction of its drums. Vocals are left and right of this one, Victony and Crayon’s distinct range unified in saccharine compromise, as they chorus together, “Na only your love wey go belle full me.”
Magixx completes the album’s trio of distinct feature vocalists. Another heartwarming love song, “You vs You” has undertones of amapiano log drums, but to the song’s own benefit, they’re never allowed into the production’s dominant space. Rather it’s the swooning elements which evoke light tension—this is the soundscape that spurs one of Crayon’s best vocal showing on the album, while Magixx continues to burnish his mythos as one of afropop’s most underrated vocals with a short but evocative verse, his almost husky tone brilliantly complementing the relatively svelte frame of Crayon’s.
The album’s love arc moves deep into it, most poignantly on the duo of “Superwoman” and “Adey.” Significant they truly are, because they’re the last moments of cherished intimacy, before Crayon turns back to the trenches to paint the gripping image of his early years. Log drums emerge vividly on the former, a tender offering to the woman of his heart’s beating. With violin stretches and sparse horns, there’s a bubbly musicality thriving within the record’s seams. “Adey” is a reserved song—R&B seems to be an offshoot influence in its demeanour, even though Crayon, ever the Afropop student, inflects his delivery with subtle touches of the genre’s conventions such as the repetitive “I dey, I dey dey” in the chorus and the culturally-aware songwriting.
As the listener gleans throughout ‘Trench to Triumph’, there’s a consistent brilliance to the production. Each beat is realised, suffused with detailed finishes, and setting a buffet of sounds before Crayon and his guests. When beats establish their own movements and ethos, it’s easy for the artist to flow within those ebbs or bounce against them, depending on the vision they have. For the most part, Crayon rides alongside the beats, but with palpable confidence in his own individuality.
This is important because there is no shortage of great producers in the creative room. Mavin-affiliated figures like Andre Vibez and Ozedikus score credits on the album, while Crayon’s mentor Baby Fresh also layers chops for the golden-voiced protege. DJ Tarico of the Yaba Buluku Boyz produce the song they feature on, the uber-popular Blaise Beats chips in his output, while BMH (most known for his work with CKay), Biggie Jazzy and Caleb Music also contribute to the album’s cohesive core. The titans Sarz and Don Jazzy have three songs between them, and the former’s genius extends into the earthy brilliance of “Ngozi”. Jazzy’s signature drum work is everywhere on “L’Eko” and if you listen closely, you’d also hear his reverberating bassy tone.
Quite remarkably, Crayon pulls all these distinct creators together and makes the album work. Although exposed to the temptations of modern afropop and the urge to try out anything and everything, the artist relays an unprecedented maturity in the handling of his material. ‘Trench to Triumph’ is a neat album, but not insufferably so. The sugary quality of pop music, and which has indeed been present throughout Crayon’s catalogue, is present, but the moments of stark humanity and vulnerability also are.
Like the album cover lets on, beauty doesn’t have to be instinctive. It can sometimes be put together, like organising a couple of kids on the street to play football, but the magic is in the photograph that’s created. In this case, the magic is in the expressive joy retained within the sound.