Review: Amaarae’s ‘The Angel You Don’t Know’
her debut album
her debut album
There were several indications that Ghanaian-American artist Amaarae was about to release one of the best albums to come out of Africa this year. Months before whispers of a new album began to fill our timelines, she conducted a week of weekly Sunday Instagram live sessions with her fans, answering questions about herself, other times teasing new songs, both concerted efforts to include her growing fanbase in her creative process. Very soon, hushed whispers turned into singles, and we were joining the singer to demand for space on the self-isolation anthem “LEAVE ME ALONE”. When the song was released, she explained in a tweet that the song was “for the young OGs to smoke and be happy to”, speaking volumes to the socially distanced days that defined this year. Two months later, she had followed up with another single, this time taking more risks and adopting the jaded attachment of a rapper on “FANCY”. By this point, the rumours were confirmed, there was an album incoming and it would be dedicated in its entirety to the bad bitches. Three years since her debut EP ‘Passionfruit Summers’, the project that put her on the map and at the centre of conversations surrounding neo-soul in Africa, she’d merely been skirting the periphery of superstardom but with her debut album, her place in the zeitgeist of the new afropop vanguard would be cemented. And boy, did she deliver.
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‘The Angel You Don’t Know (TAYDK)’ is at its best an afro fusion affair involving a range of genres, pulling inspiration from wherever Amaarae sees fit. We find her dipping into Southern rap on records like “CELINE” and “FANCY”, before plunging into unmistakable rhythmic afropop on numbers like “SAD, U BROKE MY HEART” and cooing sultry-r&b on “PARTY SAD FACE/CRAZY WURLD”. It’s a thrilling musical adventure, taking listeners on a sonic journey entirely of Amaarae’s design, where nothing is off limits and there’s no boundary to which sounds can be pushed for the sake of making sweet music. But Amaarae has been inching towards this subtly for quite some time. It was her voice on AYLO’s “Whoa” that opened up the floodgates for her rise, with an unmistakable once-in-a-generation voice, she was soon making music that was fun and fresh from moment to moment at a time where the alternative scene (dubbed the alte scene) were making their mark on the music industry. That year, 2017 as I like to recall, the internet and its possibilities were teeming and a young generation of artists were discovering that they could bypass the labels and the gatekeepers entirely. They would release their music on Soundcloud and tap directly into their millennial and Gen Z audiences–young people like them who had grown tired of the stringent rules that defined African society, bringing a fresh modern outlook to everything from fashion to entertainment and music. Names like DRB, Odunsi The Engine, Cruel Santino, Zamir, Lady Donli and more were standing at the beginning of what would be their most defining era. But not all things are synonymous to Lagos or Nigeria, despite what you may have heard. Over in Ghana, acts like La Meme Gang, Joey B, Odartei and Amaarae were building their own fan base, oftentimes crossing borders to Nigeria where they found a home in the scene. Amaarae would try her hand at a retromaniac string of singles and features over the years– lending a major guest verse on Santi‘s “Rapid Fire”, an impressive sex-positive bop on Odunsi the Engine’s “Body Count” and even Kojey Radical’s “Sugar”, she was an unmissable force, making the kind of music that sounded like it would fit in amongst the neo-soul ready sounds of artists of similar ilk such as Jhene Aiko, SZA and more.
Now three years later, the scene is no longer being shortchanged. Cruel Santino has since been chopping it up with the team at LVRN, Odunsi the Engine is on the tail end of sold-out shows in the UK and the experimental ‘Everything You Heard Is True’, AYLO has a new EP in the works, and all around these parts, alternative music seems to be finally be thriving. In fact, the scene is flourishing and enjoying near mainstream success, a feat that not many envisioned at the time. In the space of three years, more homegrown alternative acts are popping up and not just in Nigeria, the alternative scene is thriving in communities around the world, finding roots everywhere from Kampala to Accra, especially in Ghana where artists like Nxwrth, Rdvical the Kid and more have released stunning bodies of work this year already. It seems like the right time, the best climate for a new Amaarae project and the singer delivered, showing the girls and boys just exactly how it’s done. In her album’s press release, Amaarae highlighted that her creative process was achieved through “[striving] to colour outside the afro-pop parameters and re-define for myself what it means to create African music”. And staying through to this, numbers such as “TRUST FUND BABY” where she audaciously sings “Trust fund baby with this pussy, nigga you should feel privileged” over a cloud rap beat brazenly stray beyond what society has come to expect on Afropop records. African music, which is largely seen on a global scale as anything synonymous to “afrobeats” only tells one side of a multifaceted sonic story. Amaarae, who has been existing outside these parameters already, portends her global success by segueing effortlessly between a myriad of genres, blurring the lines between what’s mainstream and what’s alternative. But this won’t be a novel occurrence, she’s always been an afro-fusion dream, never needing to chip at any part of herself to endear to a global audience, Amaarae has always been ready for a moment like this, all that she had to do was step into her (superstardom/bag?)
But Amaarae could not have known the year would take such a plunge. At the start of the year, a global pandemic would force life as we know it to a halt, disrupting live shows around the world, adversely affecting streaming revenue at a point before we began to find innovative ways to drive revenue in a new normal. But a distinct type of music soared, with the clubs closed, hard hitting amped-up party jams just were not quite cutting it, forced to stay indoors listeners were tuning into slower paced songs, finding solace in the serene hallways of r&b and alternative music. Here in these parts, listening habits seem to have somewhat been affected, though there is no quantifiable data, artists like Omah Lay, Tems, SOLIS, Ictooicy, Maya Amolo and more, have found themselves garnering considerable fanfare and increased streams for their slew of music. Currently, Tems’ single “Damages” sits at the #8 spot on the Nigerian Turntable charts and #12 on the official UK Afrobeats charts, a remarkable feat for an artist who has never performed any live shows abroad.
Similarly Omah Lay has established himself as one of Nigeria’s most promising contemporary artists all within the space of a few months and with just one project under his belt. It’s ostensibly been a great year for pitched-down rhythmic music, the likes of which may well have gone under the radar in normal circumstances but there’s nothing normal about the year we have had. Perhaps this is why Amaarae, an artist who once operated firmly within the hallways of neo-soul and bedroom pop on ‘Passionfruit Summers’, has emerged three years later on ‘TAYDK’, as one willing to take more sonic risks and expand her multiverse. If there was ever a more clear case of an artist modifying the intricacies of their craft, Amaarae would be the poster child. Hearing Amaarae on a record is akin to reaching the end of a hazy dream, her voice is reminiscent of the type of music you’d expect to hear at an inexplicably cool party and she plays this well by coyly singing about sensuality and sex in honeyed tones.
If ‘TAYDK’ was a canvas then Amaarae has completely gone crazy with her paintbrush and covered every inch of it with vibrant colours. Immersing listeners into a world entirely of her own making, ‘TAYDK’ feels like an arrival of some sort. Though short, running just below the 40-minute mark, Amaarae stretches her voice without limits, creating a commingling of Afropop, cloud rap, r&b. She starts off the album with grit and intensity, snarling the words “fuck it up sis” on the project’s intro “D*A*N*G*E*R*O*U*S”, a sharp contrast to 2017’s ‘Passionfruit Summers’. Instinctively, listeners know to leave all expectations at the door, the thrilling snippets of hardcore punk present a portrait of who she’s growing to be on this record. An artist coming out of her shell, and brimming with megastar promise through the entire 14-tracker.
Described as “non-stop affirmations and incantations 4 bad bitches”, ‘TAYDK’ is punky, femme and sonically uplifting, on “JUMPING SHIP”, Amaarae admits nursing feelings of infidelity when she’s on a night out, we see her pining for a chance to switch partners, a theme that continues to the Moliy-assisted “FEEL A WAY” that immediately follows it. Her intentions are more direct and sensual, she sings “I wanna take you to my condo, I wanna fuck you but I don’t know” embracing her inner fuck boy and entertaining whoever looks good for the moment. Here, nihilistic party girl anthems have a new appeal, on “HELLZ ANGEL”, she’s cocky as ever singing “Racks on racks I bleed/try test me, bitch please”, a cocksure boast that is in sharp contradiction to the lover girl persona she wore proudly on 2017’s “Fluid” and “Sunday”. Here, Amaarae moves through highs that last on end going where the party is at as she declares on “FANTASY”. The album is at its core, a hallucinogenic high in sound and form, she doesn’t wish to be alone smoking marijuana on “FEEL A WAY” because she’s inebriated, then swallows mind-numbing pills on “PARTY SAD FACE/CRAZY WURLD” with Odunsi The Engine before disputing the use of drugs all together on “HELLZ ANGEL”. Whether there’s been any use of trippy substances is far beyond the point, the airiness of her voice is made to sound like one, bleeding into the futuristic psychedelic productions on the album courtesy of Rvdical the Kid, Kyu Steed, Yinoluu, and Kuvie among others.
On ‘TAYDK’, Amaarae’s focus never strays beyond the world she has created, remaining within the confines of her own experiences. She contemplates buying her mama a Bentley on “HELLZ ANGEL”, a telltale sign of success for any rapper, then elsewhere on “JUMPING SHIP” she toys with the idea of leaving her partner while inebriated on liquid luck at the function and later coyly asks to be held down by a love interest on “3AM”, but outside this, she never strays too far from the pure adrenaline of getting up to no good, of longing for someone who’s heart can’t be trusted and fucking your worries away and she doesn’t have to. You move as the lyrics are uttered to build towards a deeper narrative albeit one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. One of the markers of good pop music is it’s sonic feel-good quality which all but demands you dance to it. Listening to some of the greatest pop stars Ariana Grande or Katy Perry is an aural experience made memorable by recognisable uptempo soundtrack a night in an appropriately humid club. The same can be said of Afropop artists like Davido, Wizkid, and now Amaarae whose albums this year have dealt with less serious subject matters but which still deserve to be enjoyed for music sake. They operate within a genre that seeks to get the clubs or dance floors moving, and if they so choose to stray out of these confines, as artists like Burna Boy often do then that’s entirely up to them. Speaking to Pitchfork, Amaarae shared that: “I was thinking, what do I want to say to people or how do I want my message to come across. Then I got to the point where I didn’t even care. I don’t have to have depth, I can also just have a good time making music that people can also have a good time listening to and that was eventually what I arrived at”. The result is ‘TAYDK’, a moody collection of avant-pop pieces where the one thing on Amaarae’s mind is enjoying life’s pleasures as she boldly revels in her latitude. All this irresistible sex might be too much for many of us, especially given that we’re still in a global pandemic that has put on pause many intimate casual activities. But Amaarae’s duty here is to run us through what could be on offer if things were different in a drowsy, pacified tone.
She employs a variety of forms on ‘TAYDK’, at one moment mashing up r&b with afropop and at other moments sprinkling in bits of cloud rap, a nod to her earlier days as a rapper. ‘TAYDK’ in its entirety, often reads like a commingling of all her backgrounds as she flips between tones and dialects, a nod to America and Ghana, her two homes growing up, and Nigeria where she was catapulted into public consciousness. But there’s no denying that the album shows her growing ability to integrate her multi-facets into her work. Whether that’s by asking for to fuck or by inviting a lover to fall into her arms, she’s showing a clearer picture of the artist we see today. Amaa Serwah Gaafi clearly has many sides to her personality. Artist’s personalities are an important facet of how fans relate to them, female artists especially have used personas to communicate different sides of them and different sounds that accompany these alter-egos. We’ve seen Beyonce and Sasha Fierce, Megan thee Stallion and Tina Snow or Suga and even Nicki Minaj with Roman Zolanski and Lady Donli as both Cash Mummy and Space Whore. Though Amaarae does not outwardly purport any new alter-ego’s (there’s still a case for making Hellz Angel her moniker), she’s more willing to share the full range of her personhood. She shared recently that “In many ways people are getting to know a really delicate, multifaceted version of me – my mission is that they meditate on it, enjoy it for what it is and allow some of these records to be the soundtrack to some beautiful memories in their lives.” Earlier in the year, when I interviewed Odunsi the Engine, we discussed a similar conundrum with artist-fan relationships. As someone who’s endlessly been scrutinised for the stylistic changes he employs, he was never too worried about alienating older fans if it meant sacrificing his sonic and personal growth. But where people were more apprehensive about The Engine’s, the opposite can be said of Amaarae who has been fully embraced since ‘TAYDK’ was being teased and even more so now that it’s out. Speaking to day one Amaarae stans from Ghana, a group popularly known as Raenbows which has been operating since mid-2018, I’m told that “it’s been incredible to see Amaarae go from a new, but well-loved artist from Accra become the rising international star she is today. Collaborations with other artists have definitely played a big role, especially in growing the Nigerian fanbase! We’ve seen a lot of love from Naija Raenbows recently, and only hope that the momentum continues and more people around Africa and the world find and love Amaarae’s music”.
Production-wise, Amaarae gets comfortable with the darkness. In stark contrast to ‘Passionfruit Summers’, listening to ‘TAYDK’ can be a bit eerie especially at moments when L.A. artist Gothic Tropic punctuates the air with her shrill screams. But right from the album’s title, you’re reminded that suffering and joy often exist in tandem. Amaarae juxtaposes a familiar saying replacing the devil you don’t know for an angel, accepting that although there may be darkness lurking underneath in numbers like “DAZED AND ABUSED IN BEVERLY HILLS”, that doesn’t make her any less of an angelic being, we all have a bit of darkness in us. Instead of softening her truth, Amaarae is forthcoming about the details. She’s taken the drugs or has lost herself on the dancefloor to numb the pain, it’s a hedonistic cure, but a cure all the same. Afropop–a genre typically upbeat and catchy to match the equally vibrant lyrics is stretched to include even the most distressing of topics. It’s evident that there are no rules when Amaarae is in her zone and her close work with a myriad of producers from around the world brought the vision to life. Speaking to Yinka Bernie, I’m told that Amaarae knew exactly how she wanted “SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY” to sound, giving him details of the heavy drums and chords she needed to pass across her message. “I had this in mind when I was making the beat and It just worked out together to be a distinct afropop number. I think it was a nice inclusion in the project overall, it’s very bumpy and danceable and sad gurlz (and boyz) do love money so yeah,” he reveals to me.
Clearly, Amaarae’s deep understanding of her own psyche results in music that’s equal parts fiery and reflective. She’s created her own planet and we’re just visitors, admiring how she bends genres to her desired outcome, a detail that seems to now dominate so many conversations surrounding her. All these years later, Amaarae has delivered a record that scratches far beneath the surface of her persona and it’s a stunning debut that takes into account the multi-layered experience of being a Gen Z creative in the world today, from sexuality to shenanigans. This is what sets this project apart: a rare and rounded glimpse into her world. And as she accurately croons on the album closer “PARTY SAD FACE/CRAZY WURLD”: “[she’s] a crazy girl, [she’s] come to rock the crazy world”.