Review: Asa’s ‘V’

one of the most brilliant musical minds of her generation

In this contemporary, post-militarised phase of Nigerian music, there are few artists as addicted to the thrill of immersive world-building as the songbird known as Asa is. A precocious singer who was raised on the lounging Jazz, Soul, and Afrobeat collection of her cinematographer father, Bukola Elemide emerged on the Nigerian music scene in the mid 2000s. She stood out immediately as her sound familiarly retooled the gut-wrenching lyrical signature of musical titans such as Aretha Franklin, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross. While the influence of her stylistic forefathers is palpable, she also added the cinematic flair of her father’s work to create a brand of music that was predicated on excellent penmanship and character furtherance. In addition to all of this, Asa’s music presented vivid snapshots of her interpretation of Nigerian culture, fuelled dually by an abiding sense of nostalgia for a home she left behind, given that her she moved to Paris for a number of years.

Much of Aṣa’s earliest and most acclaimed works were lived-in interpretations on the human condition, grief, love, familial love,  and betrayal driven by the singer’s natural inquisitiveness which would go on to birth some of the most foundational records in Nigeria’s Neo-soul canon. Standout songs in her catalogue such as Fire On The Mountain,” Bamidele,” and Bibanke are timeless gems that suggested a singer with clarity of thought. In going down this path, Aṣa became an institution unto herself, regularly heralded as a different kind of artist: one who has maintained her commercial edge without sacrificing her artistic licence.

Despite this view, the truth of the matter is that Asa has always been a shrewd operator, blessed with a prescient sense of the music landscape and steeped in the stylistics of Nigerian pop. Where the aforementioned “Fire On The Mountain” remains a high watermark of artistry off her debut album, “Jailer,” was the commercial heartbeat of her eponymous debut. Similarly, when she released her sophomore album, the leavened tone of ‘Beautiful Imperfection’ was counterbalanced by the jazz-inspired fiesta that was Be My Man while the cherry joyfulness of Eyo gave 2014’s ‘Bed of Stone’ its commercial heft.

All of this came to a head on her last album. After five years without releasing fresh material—the longest spell of her career—Asa’s music lacked the tangible connection to the heart of Nigerian music that all her previous efforts had despite their unique soundscapes. On ‘Lucid,’ largely inspired by Rock and Folk music, the ever-present sense of wonder and charm that made listening to Asa’s recounting of hurt and mild disappointment was swapped out for a hardened edge that engendered the feeling that danger was lurking at every corner. A tour was planned to help promote ‘Lucid,’  but then COVID-19 hit the world. 

Something about the pandemic and its after-shock brought a sense of perspective to many around the world—isolating alone in almost-empty houses can have that effect. And so, the music that has sprung out in a world still making sense of COVID-19 restrictions has sounded like songs of yearning for freedom and letting loose. Not unlike many other people, Asa had surplus time on her hand to look within during the pandemic. Isolating in Lagos, a new album began to take shape in the 39-year-old’s head, and for the first time, she was going to record entirely in Nigeria, inspired by the sun, food, air, and vibe of her home country. True to her words, that album, ‘V,’ takes inspiration from the mood and bounce of Nigerian pop music.  

V’ is Asa at her most light-hearted and unrestrained. There is a palpable sense of chromatic joy, playfulness, exuberance, and freedom to ‘V’ that is hard to find anywhere else in Aṣa’s oeuvre. Where its predecessor, ‘Lucid,’ gave expression to some of Asa’s most nihilistic thoughts and desires across its 14 tracks, ‘V’ possesses the narrative-laden wonder that makes Asa a brilliant listen. Nothing quite captures the scope of the singer’s vision for this project like the opener, “Mayana,” does. Aṣa has sang of love before, skirted around its borders in her songs, playfully requested for its glow but there’s a new depth to how her inquest is structured on “Mayana.” There’s an allusion to an island and living there for as long as possible with a love interest. 

The floating sense of comfort that inspired “Mayana” is also at play on its follow-up, “Ocean,” where Aṣa makes a grand gesture comparing her lover to the boundlessness of the ocean. Gone are the mooning songs about complicated love or technically-structured verses that made her the patron saint of indie-pop acts across Nigeria, instead Asa’s focus is on wrapping love in silky euphemisms and similes. When she intently sings, “Boy you are the ocean,” drawing out the words to imprint the impulse that inspires it, there are no doubts to how she’s feeling.  

In many ways, this is also an album about opening up Asa’s world to new people and influences as well as terrains that she hasn’t ventured into since we met her more than 17 years ago. Rising producer, P.Priime, was tapped to produce 90% of the album, supplying instrumentals largely built smoky soulish samples and minimalist percussions that suit Aṣa’s supple voice to a tee while nudging her to experiment with theme and topics. Blue-haired soul singer, WurlD, continues to be distinctly identifiable, writing with Asa on “Ocean” and contributing backing vocals. 

The biggest collaboration on this project remains IDG,” the Wizkid collaboration where both singers collide eras, sounds, and energies atop Priime’s ice-cool instrumental. Tackling a classic Afrofusion instrumental, Asa remains effortlessly cool, singing lines like, “nothing can break me, nothing can bring me down” with absolute belief in their potency, while Wizkid slides in with a relaxed verse about being able to tell real love apart from the fake version. It’s a collaboration that’s been over a decade in the making but both singers sound like perfect partners as they croon and swoon listeners over a funky track.

Nike is a curious choice to follow up “IDG.” On its distinct chorus, Asa gently recedes to the impulse of ‘Lucid,’ gently singing, in pidgin, “I no fit to love anyone anyone” with all the theatrical flair that she can manage; it’s a little off-message but it’s just a brief detour from the singer who is committed to love on ‘V.’ The next song, Show Me Off,” is a creative scion of “Be My Man,” but the drums, regardless of how fleeting they are, bring Asa’s work into the realm of contemporary Nigerian pop, which is more visible on Morning Man.” 

After all these years of creating music largely on her own, on ‘V,’ Asa has also decided to seek out some of West Africa’s most inventive musicians to test her chemistry with and validate their admiration of her pioneering work. Highlife brother duo The Cavemen set the vibe of Good Times,” singing about the validity of love in the context of friendship. The song’s mid-tempo pace briefly sees Asa make a return to the elegant ballads that she made a signature at the beginning of her career.


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Elsewhere, she experiments with a flow that blurs the intersection of R&B and Hip-Hop on All I’ve Ever Wanted. It’s one of the most subtly urgent songs on ‘V’, but it’s another example of Asa crossing over into the world of her collaborator who happens to be Ghanaian singer, Amaarae. (Asa has said that she started writing this song with Amaarae in mind.) It’s also the most experimental song here, and it manages to capture Asa’s fluid expressionism across genres.

The finale of ‘V’ is a would-be anthem, Love Me Or Give Me Red Wine,” where Asa fits in lines like, “There’s no one else/You’re all I need” next to unclear lyrics that reflect the wanderlust of her heart. It’s the most forthright Asa, the solemn singer of Iba and Murder In The USA,” has ever been about romance in her career, but maybe she’s just ticking off mental notes on her to-do list.

In the years since Asa first became a national star, her creative work has provided inspiration to countless people as well as nourished a listening base that would do anything to see her approach to arrangement and song-writing established at the heart of Nigerian pop. The emergence of writers like Buju, Fireboy DML, and Omah Lay has provided a synthesis of good lyricism and exciting melodies but none of these writers have a mastery of melancholy like Asa has and neither can they bend the tedious to their will as Ms. Bukola Elemide does. The singing and writing on ‘V’ is a brilliant fusion of Asa’s soul music and the cadence of Nigerian pop. If she already scaled the mountains with her earlier work, this is the summit of one of the most brilliant musical minds of her generation.

Listen to Asa’s ‘V’ below.