Review: Obongjayar’s ‘Some Nights I Dream Of Doors’
Obongjayar’s arrival into the music scene wasn’t glossed over. His was a silent but effective entry, taking years to develop his artistry whilst completing a university degree in Norwich. A move to London followed shortly before the release of his debut EP, ‘Home’ in 2016, and not long after, publications began to take notice […]
Obongjayar’s arrival into the music scene wasn’t glossed over. His was a silent but effective entry, taking years to develop his artistry whilst completing a university degree in Norwich. A move to London followed shortly before the release of his debut EP, ‘Home’ in 2016, and not long after, publications began to take notice of him, pulled into the entrancing universe of Obongjayar.
Six years have passed since the haunting chords of “Creeping” were first shared with the world. In the pace of today’s streaming era, a lot can happen during that time. An entire career could begin and end, supposing it was built on temporary stilts of virality. Not his though: Obongjayar’s artistry is a solid rock. He’s accustomed to being different from his younger days in Calabar and has updated his sound with every project. Casual listeners might think of him as esoteric, but there’s no doubt that a shining humane quality permeates the core of his records. Across Afropop, his illuminating perspective is bettered only by his voice, a tour de force which other elements of his skillset revolve around.
Having established that Obongjayar’s strength is his independence, it’s the reason his debut album coming six years after his introduction feels like no anomaly at all – even though it is certainly an anomaly in today’s music business. But then Obongjayar’s music recalls nothing of the strict poise of an official lifestyle. It’s flamboyant, carefree, instant and wrapped around flaming balls of sound which gather clouds from genres as diverse as Afrobeats, Funk, electronic music, Jazz and Hip Hop.
The release of ‘Some Nights I Dream Of Doors’ was trailed by an admirable rollout. The musician’s colourful performance on Lil Simz “Point And Kill” broadened his homeward appeal and also followed into “Message In A Hammer”, an incendiary response to the frustrating excesses of the Nigerian political elite. It was released exactly a year after the October 20, 2020 Lekki massacre.
These moments of awareness, coupled with Obongjayar’s flair for features cut a favourable figure of the 27-year-old. He appeared on the radar of influential tastemakers in Afropop, getting on playlists and publications. His profile with The NATIVE intimately collected his idea of dreams, the narrative prism through which he frames ‘Doors’. “All The Difference” therefore portends an emotional cornerstone of the album. Across four verses Obongjayar tenderly paints his relationship with his grandmother, who was his guardian and shaped his earliest values. “Turn our guard down, I was weightless with you/ It was my first time/ I was so scared and it changed me like a good song,” he sings over soft drums.
The union of family is important in Obongjayar’s exploration of dreams. He belongs in the realm of musicians who understand that loving home is one’s first step towards loving the world. Singing how he does only goes one step of the way. His portraits of immediate family members complete the mix. “I Wish It Was Me” is rendered at the feet of his younger brother like a glorious spread of roses. Such a record shreds normal typical expectations of masculinity, especially within black households where parental trauma can increase the likelihood of emotional distance between siblings. Before the album’s release, Obongjayar shared a clip from his recent trip to Nigeria: he performed for his family, backed by the evocative strings of “I Wish It Was Me”. He sounds exactly the same as on record. “When you pray you’re answered, you walk through life just like a dancer/ If I had my way everyday would be your parade” he sings, and by the time he gets to the chorus of “Ooh, I adore you”, you can almost feel the intensity of the teary eyes around him.
The peculiarities of this relationship between Obongjayar and his brother can also be framed within a larger context. The seminal basketball documentary ‘Hoop Dreams’ was the spur behind its title and within its narrative centre are also two male characters. Obongjayar being an artist takes the plot device into the motions of his own life. Thus the titular ‘Doors’ can be interpreted in many ways: on leaving one’s home; on the transcendental nature of music, or on the progressive relationship between timelines—in his own words, “constantly going back into your life and taking experiences that help you grow”.
This tussle with history is laid bare across Obongjayar’s catalogue.
His possession of critical love and increasing commercial presence can also be said to contribute to his outlook, layered with soulful vocals. Some songs on ‘Doors’ thus carry the satisfying nature of watching a feather float in air. “Wrong For It” is one of those, a whistle-led record which features the Jazz musician Nubya Garcia. Obongjayar sings for the kids who are apprehensive of appearing too full with dreams. “Stop trying to please everyone else, stop trying to fix everything/ This town gets smaller the taller you get” he sings with charming wisdom on the chorus. On “Sugar” he name-checks his native area of Atekong in Calabar—who thought he’d make it this far? The expansive nature of Barney Lister’s groovy percussions teases what is arguably the most exciting-sounding song on ‘Doors’.
Such journeys do not take a straight course, however. ‘Doors’ has its moments of startling vulnerability. Songs like “Parasite” and “Some Nights I Dream Of Doors” are the equivalent of a movie character entering a gloomy phase, the necessary grey before a sweep of perspective reintroduces colour to their existential worries. The former adopts a medical concept as Obongjayar requests a doctor’s explanation for the sickness inside his head. Depression isn’t explicitly mentioned but hinted at (“the pain you don’t see, it don’t mean it don’t exist”), allowing listeners to translate as they understand it. The titular song carries the heft of a cinematic masterpiece, propelled by dreamy chords which evoke sustained melancholy. Obongjayar’s singing plunges the depths of the feelings he sings about; here he most resembles forebears like Bob Dylan and Asa, evoking rich sensory detail with remarkable minimalism. “Some nights I dream of doors,” he sings, “my obsession will drive me to the end or set me free”.
He’s indeed set free in the latter parts of the album. An interlude titled “My Life Can Change Today” supposedly records the artist waking up over the course of a year to say the words of affirmation; it’s surprisingly one of the lighter moments on the record. “New Man” follows immediately, soaking in the returning gains of optimism. With calculated ripples of war-like percussions, it is boisterous in its proclamations of an elevated identity. “This that new black shit, we fly for the ones before us” he raps, before acclaiming “I was born warrior, I come second to no one/ See my skin, hear my tongue, I’m no man I’m a god”.
While Obongjayar reached closer to his Nigerian roots, he made ‘Sweetness’ with Sarz. On four songs they combine for a futuristic take on Afropop, lined with electric flourishes from eighties Disco. Obongjayar took an obligatory step into the romantic tension embedded in Afropop’s thematic material, revealing a richer layer to his vocals. A record like “If You Say” is sonically advanced by “Tinko Tinko”, which has one of Obongjayar’s most heartfelt performances on ‘Doors’. The song situates him in the familiar but distasteful role of being an acquaintance when you’d rather be the person’s lover. Tenderness is ceded for clarity. “Don’t play me for a fool, I’d rather be alone than be next to someone who don’t feel like I do,” he sings with exhilarating awareness, before posing the million naira question: “Are we in love or are we just comfortable?”
The transcendental nature of music then becomes necessary to take one through such motions of life. Whether good or bad, purposeful notes of sound can make everything more bearable. Carried on ethereal piano chords, “Wind Sailor” is the perfect closer for an album like ‘Doors’. There are undertones of racial discrimination (“it’s getting harder and harder for people like us”) as Obongjayar plunges deeper into the listlessness of being an outcast. “I keep losing faith in everything” is an astute description of the greyness of being burdened by dreams, but such nihilism doesn’t portend the final narrative. Music being the wind sailor becomes his “saving grace [and] only hope” and when the song ends with the teary-eyed assurance that he’ll be okay, you’re inclined to believe him.
Owing to its assortment of premium artistic virtues, ‘Some Nights I Dream of Doors’ emerges as a remarkable debut album. Not only is Obongjayar’s pen graced with poetic economy (“living in troubled waters, every stroke is war”), the amorphous nature of his vocals can go a thousand ways, but mostly flames with the ferocity of an ancient storyteller (“Message In A Hammer”) or softens with warm lulls (“Wind Sailor”). On “Try”, he reaches the extremes of his impressive tonal range, producing a compelling performance which sets the ball rolling for what to expect throughout the album.
His choice of twelve songs also complements the album’s breezy allure. Barney Lister produces eleven songs out of those, extending their creative partnership from ‘Which Was Is Forward’. While that project was edgier, ‘Doors’ benefits from a lived-in understanding of Obongjayar’s vision. With the exception of bops like “Sugar” and “Tinko Tinko”, the production unfurls purposefully in the background. Dramatic chords are often employed to heighten the flair of Obongjayar’s singing; other times, bursts of percussions and synths further pronounce the flagrant movements familiar with the artist.
The British music scene witnesses an overflow of talented artists every day, but Obongjayar remains uniquely him. What you find in ‘Doors’ is simply unattainable anywhere else, and it helps that his eclectic artistry doesn’t obscure one’s true need for narrative background. After seeking home through a trio of short projects, he arrives finally. ‘Doors’ is timely because the movement of people across several nations of the world comes with baggage which you won’t find in news reports. But now we see how powerfully a dream can grip one individual, and the vessels of emotions it pours into–whether familial, romantic or political. “The catch with dreaming is that the dream never ends”, Obongjayar said to me months ago. This album, too, never ends. For as long as someone out there in the world dreams of creating a better future for themselves, whether through art or anything else, there will always be the timeless motions of this album to soundtrack their efforts.