Review: Asake’s ‘Work Of Art’
A heat check leveraging his superstar status
A heat check leveraging his superstar status
In music, confidence is a drug. You can tell when an artist is operating at a new plane of self-assuredness: There’s more pep in their cadence, they sing of opulent feats, the need to expand their artistic scope comes across as an innate endeavour, and a belief in their own hubris means the artist is working on their own time. In Nigerian music, there are many instances where artists use unbridled confidence after an acclaimed debut album as the driving force to supercharge their powers, like how Wizkid’s post-‘Superstar’ feature run and defining contributions to the EME compilation project was mythical, or in Adekunle Gold’s awe-inspiring evolution from folk singer to sleek popstar.
If there was a numeric apparatus to measure this sort of confident drive, Asake’s would probably break the scale. Last year, the Lagos-born singer bum-rushed the Nigerian music mainstream with a run for the ages, headlined by the releases of a semi-eponymous debut EP and a greatly acclaimed debut LP, both stuffed to the ears with smash hits. Nine months after the instant classic ‘Mr Money With the Vibe’, Asake has returned with the sophomore full-length, ‘Work of Art’, leveraging in on his superstar status by tactfully pushing the envelope on his artistry without disrupting the flow established by its predecessor. “Different pattern of my own style/so consistent, no resistance,” he sing-raps amidst ricocheting log drums on penultimate track, “Great Guy.”
The hallmarks of Asake’s back-to-back-to-back 2022 campaign have been dug into, even taking into account their influencing nature within Nigerian pop. There’s the importance of Amapiano and South African House to the singer’s preferred sonic canvas, the formative influence of Fuji music on his songwriting, the infectiousness of backing, choral vocals, and how snippets helped drive the hype train. Just as important as all these music elements is the palatable nature of his persona, a street-bred singer that didn’t come with the divisive quirks or antics of several recent forebears and colleagues within the same artistic lineage. Even when placed side-by-side with an easily lovable star like Zinoleesky, Asake comes across as more polished, floating above every crude perception that often limits easy, overt mainstream acceptance for street-pop artists.
The music matches the image. Without peddling irreverence, he mirrors what it means to come from the non-glossy side of Lagos, singing in Yoruba and English, interpolating slangs and quips that originated from these places. The melodies demand to be sung at lung-bursting levels, the beats are flamboyant and often dance-ready, and the vibes are wholesome. There’s an edge but not the type that will bruise easily offended ears. ‘Work of Art’ doesn’t upend that balance; in fact, it’s a testament to how effortlessly Asake collapses street and pop into a near-frictionless entity, without rendering his ambition in beige overtones.
Where his first album lived at the intersection of gratitude and thoughtful optimism, ‘WOA’ is far more triumphant and indulgent. “Walking poetry, I am greater/I’m a work of art, Basquiat,” he sings on the proto-title track, one of the many self-aggrandising sentiments that’s delivered with a blasé authority. As album-defining as it is, the parallel reference to Jean-Michel Basquiat only works on the surface. The half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican painter and artist was more than a Neo-Impressionist pioneer, he was a magnetic figure who constantly railed against racism in his work and beyond, and he also dealt with drug abuse and allegedly committed assault on multiple occasions.
Asake, like several other musicians and millions of admirers, only look at Basquiat through rose-tinted frames, identifying with the rags-to-riches theme in many of his works and the eternal acclaim he continues to accrue, close to four decades after his untimely death. That continued impact and the outsize influence has made Basquiat the template for hundreds of artists, and not only does Asake see a parallel, he envisions that kind of eternal impact. That it’s surface is less of a flaw and more of a design, given how guarded the singer is about his person beyond the music.
‘WOA’ doesn’t tell us anything particularly new about the man Ololade Asake—perhaps that’s a positive in the era of oversharing. What it does, however, is bolster the singular nature of Asake’s skillset under the glow of being a minted superstar who has gotten too big to fail in a relatively short period. “Iwaju gan o easy/eyin o shey lo, omo iya mi sho ti ri n si/my boat never sinking/mo kanaku mo jiggy/they wanna know what I’m thinking,” he sings in one of the revelatory passages on “Awodi,” briefly pondering the difficulties of sustaining forward momentum but ultimately landing on the buoyant feeling of being accomplished.
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In a sense, ‘WOA’ is a heat check, a Steph Curry logo shot in the middle of a scoring binge. It’s an act of showmanship where audacity is half the fun, there’s zero risk assessment when the reward is this tantalising. This sophomore doesn’t have the same instant stop-you-in-your-tracks factor as ‘MMWTV’, largely due to the effect of the turnaround, but it’s arguably the more rewarding listen with each front-to-back spin. As much as he’s reprising already familiar tricks, there’s an undeniable dynamism in the approach to every facet of the music, and the depth in Asake’s writing is striking.
A show of Asake’s dominance in the previous year was in how listeners defined his lyrics as mazes that need close attention to be fully appreciated and, ultimately, remembered. It’s easy to scoff at those opinions now, considering that the singer’s writing is even more packed. There are aphorisms, taken from folksy and urban Yoruba culture, littered across ‘WOA’; he’s gone from referencing ‘Gongo Aso’ to using the phrase within the confines a boastful one-liner. Even his well-known reverence for the divine deepens his “Chrislam” representation—“I get many pages like Songs of Solmon/l’ola Anobi Mohammed, koni wa’le lai lai till we reach Al Jannah,” he intones on “Basquiat.”
The writerly nature here works due to a deeper dalliance with rap music, optimising the cadence of “PBUY” for a large portion of the project. There’s also the Olamide factor, who’s the only featured artist, on the pre-released banger “Amapiano,” and is credited as co-writer on a few songs. In addition to references to all-time rap classic ‘Illmatic’ and the late, great 2Pac, ‘WOA’ features taut rhyme schemes and pedantic moments that add to the technical flash. Off “What’s Up My G,” “Full branding, no be fugazi/white range and black Maserati/we dey fire go, koni da fun anybody,” is showy as any line you’ll hear in a rap song this year. On “I Believe,” he uses the word Metaverse as a reference to the extinction of third verses in pop/rap songs, a framing that would be useless on its own but adds some flash to the lines next to it.
Again, Magicsticks is the main collaborator on ‘WOA’, repeating his role as primary producer and sound engineer. Helming 11 of the 14 tracks, his chemistry with Asake gets the same facelift even as the duo double down on their signature blend of maximalist Amapiano-pop. Except the Sakara-via-Sega arrangement of lead single and album closer, the peace-seeking “Yoga,” every other song from the pair features log drum-indented production, some more inventive than others but the music always colourful. As in the past, their inspirations are easily traceable in some cases, with “Mogbe” taking cues from the skeletal grooviness of “Bheba” and the egregiously-titled “Amapiano” whirrs in a similar tone as the Bacardi-‘Piano funk of “Ba Straata.”
Considering Nigerian pop’s predatory relationship with the South African-originated sound, it’s worth identifying the exciting ways Asake and Magic create their variations. “Awodi,” which references Prince Adekunle Juju classic “Awodi Nfo Ferere,” is a thumping folk-pop highlight, the log drums banged out in the same way you’d hear a drum set played in a church with Yoruba folks. “Sunshine” and the Blaise Beatz-produced “2:30” are stunning visions of Fuji-pop with the unique knock of log drums as the texture for their percussive choices.
To boot, the melodies and riffs are brightly coloured: “Remember” is a lush piece with gorgeous violin and strings, “Basquiat” and the P.Priime co-produced “Introduction” are both accented by squealing alto sax, and the stacked vocals on the hook of “I Believe” is underlined by droning synths. “Lonely at the Top,” produced by Blaise Beatz, is the most unique song of the set, reminiscent of the kind of songs you’d hear and sing along to at a Kegite gathering.
Asake clearly still has a multitude of musical influences to tap from, the same way there’s personal depth to mine into songs if he so chooses. The hallmark of the most interesting popstars, though, is in how they make every choice sound and feel worthwhile, setting their own stakes and meeting them on their own terms. Asake has undoubtedly figured that out, he’s masterfully dictating how listeners should interface with him and his music, knowing fully well that he’s got a template that will always get the people going. ‘Work of Art’ is proof that he’s in total control.