Review: Odunsi’s ‘rare.’
On his genre-defying debut album ‘rare.,’ Odunsi The Engine delivers a concise snapshot of a rising star on the brink of an explosion. Three years from its release, we take a look back at the album that changed everything.
It’s been three years since Odunsi The Engine released his kaleidoscopic genre-defying debut album ‘rare.,’ a project that’s been heralded as one of the most defining moments in his career. As one of the most enigmatic and highly debated characters in the Nigerian soundscape, the singer has kept many on their toes, eager for new releases or music snippets on his Soundcloud or even just a glimpse of his outlandish sartorial choices on social media. He’s known to cause polarising conversations with each new endeavour he puts out into the universe, with proponents arguing for and against his latest scheme with rapt attention.
However, the man himself is largely unperturbed, choosing instead to focus on the music and melodies that have earned him the continued loyalty of his core fanbase. In terms of keeping up with the demand for something new, boundless and inimitable, Odunsi The Engine is keeping abreast with the changing times, morphing himself in more ways than imaginable and shedding the skins of his past. In terms of discarding his chameleonic skin, the man is still a myth beyond the music that we hear from him.
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Back in 2015 when Odunsi (The Engine) made his first foray into music as a producer for Cruel Santino, his longtime friend and collaborator, the young star would never have imagined that one day he too would also soundtrack the time of our young lives. At the time, Odunsi had dropped out of formal education and was pursuing a career in music as a producer off the back of a Fruity Loops crack he was gifted by a keyboardist at his local church. Odunsi would wind up making beats for Cruel Santino and working at studios frequented by some of the most notable names in the alternative scene including DRB and LOS. It wasn’t so much that he was used to existing in the background, but more so that Odunsi never dreamed that one day this would be his current reality.
As a producer, he was able to cut the noise and keep the focus on his music but as an artist, this only became harder and harder as the singer rose through the ranks and quickly cemented himself as one of the most talented young stars in these parts. While combing through his discography, you’d discover that Odunsi merely doing his part to bring the warmth and wonder of lush and oftentimes disconcerted soundscapes to our primed ears. It’s evident that he’s not fixated on staying within the confines of genres in these parts as much as he is about heedlessly stepping over and stretching their boundaries.
In 2018, the musical soundscape in West Africa was just nearing an apex. The sheer amount of music we were receiving was vastly different, with Afropop growing at an exponential rate and rubbing shoulders with places and people around the world. At the time, frontrunners such as Mr Eazi had delivered his ebullient project ‘Life is Eazi Vol 2: Lagos to London’, a melodious album fusing elements of highlife, reggae, dancehall while Burna Boy had firmly stepped into his ‘Outside’ era with raw, unapologetic Afro-fusion sounds. The sounds emanating from the Nigerian music scene, at the time, were undeniably getting hotter and hotter by the second. Amidst these hits released by industry heavyweights, all eyes were on the new generation of Afropop hitmakers who dared to go against the norm and make music on their own terms. Names such as Odunsi (The Engine), Cruel Santino, Lady Donli, AYLØ, DRB and more, we’re constantly making rounds across social media as we watched in awe as they bypassed gatekeepers and connected directly with their millennial and Gen Z audiences. In our NATIVE 003 Rebel Issue, Odunsi (The Engine) shared that “LOS and DRB did what they did, so we could get here. Then even when Santi was Ozzy, he did what he did, so we could get here. Now all of us are coming together.” That was perfectly indicative of 2018 and the fervour of the alternative scene which worked hand-in-hand to earn mainstream success.
That same year, Odunsi made his remarkable official entry into the Afropop soundscape with a 14 track album featuring some of the scene’s favourites Davido, Santi, Runtown and Amaarae to name a few. The word “alté” was growing increasingly popular in categorising the niche of alternative African sounds as well as anyone who was defying the status quo. The scene had seen stellar releases from “Rapid Fire” by Santi featuring Amaarae, Tomi Agape and Shane Eagle, “SUGARDADDY” by Tay Iwar and “Classic” by Cash Mummy herself, Lady Donli to name a few. Despite tapping into Nonso Amadi and Tay Iwar for Afropop records like “Desire” with similar mid-tempo drums, Odunsi has always been labelled as an industry outlier. He soon became the poster boy for all things alternative and daring. This culminated in the release of the Yinoluu-produced single “Alte Cruise” which would go on to define those times and the growing online presence that these disruptors were making.
While they were first welcomed and embraced for breaking the boundaries of their creativity, the alté movement only received more pushback from the community of consumers interested in the mainstream Afropop sounds. However, sticking to his message, Odunsi was bent on changing our perception of Pop music emerging from Nigeria, and with the inspiration from Funk music he grew up on he released ‘rare’. With the aid of 80’s pop projects by Steve Monite and Oby Oniyioha amongst others, Odunsi created a standout debut album with catchy, colourful songs thus reshaping the Afropop scene, a decision we still appreciate three years down the road. Two days into March of 2018, the track rollout for his new project ‘rare’ started with the release of “Alte Cruise” embellished with a distinctly retro-inspired aesthetic. This promotional single showcased his need to defy genres, to experiment with music and visual storytelling and defying the box Afropop music was placed in. Tapping into Zamir and Santi, the trio give their take on communicating one’s intentions in relationships without managing to sound like heartbreakers.
Odunsi opens up the mid-tempo track and sets the tone as he shares his willingness to compromise for an implausible relationship “I ain’t really got what you need/but I’d be here for the night”. “Alte Cruise” was accompanied with 00’s style visuals, a compilation of videos amongst the trio and their crew spotting familiar faces like Deto Black, Ashley Okoli and more. Directed by Santi, this further cemented the simple rebuttal of all the works coming out of the mainstream Afropop scene at the time, preparing us for the stellar project that was ‘rare’. Intro track “rare” starts the album off with slow-tempo piano and guitar riffs accompanied by other ambient sounds cueing in Hamzaa’s melodious vocals. “It’s my time and nobody can tell me nothing/I told you I’m ready” a true manifestation of what was to come regarding Odunsi’s career and the bigger picture that is the general growth of the alternative music scene. Joined by D.A.P, they ride the wave of the beat, the pair harmonies and lyricism reveal Odunsi’s readiness to handle the pressure of releasing his debut album. Closing off the track is Tomi Thomas whose spoken-word monologue seamlessly eases us into the next track “falling” where Odunsi’s vocals shine over the disco-inspired beat as he sings about his love interest, Ifunanya.
While their sounds are dissimilar, it is reminiscent of P-square’s “Ifunanya”, an early 2000’s song where just like Odunsi they express their undying love for their muse. On this self-produced number, Odunsi’s production and artistic skills shine through as his soft, melodious vocals glide over the intoxicating energy resonating from the sound waves as he expresses the uniqueness of his love interest “Can’t you see I’m falling in love/No one else can make me feel this way”. He seems relentless in this pursuit as he confesses “Your mama no like me, but me I love your mama”. Similar to “falling”, “wanted you” is a disco and funk-inspired track where Odunsi takes the romantic route making use of his sultry vocals to express familiar sentiments.
Following a less optimistic route, Odunsi taps into Hamzaa once again for “take me there”, the short slow-tempo track heavy on the drums has only two verses which perfectly encapsulates his commitment to love that may not necessarily favour him, a message many of us are all too familiar with. Taking the message further after a brief introduction of Donli’s recognisable vocals is another monologue, this time speaking to the growth of the artist thus far. The mood picks up with the proceeding track “outcast” produced by Genio Bambino where Odunsi recounts the journey to stardom. Here, he candidly speaks about his time in high school where he felt like an outcast for his disinterest in formal education. Odunsi soon realised that there is power in being different and uses this to his advantage on the track. He shared with us on NATIVE 003 that despite being surrounded by the love and comfort from his family, at this time of his life he felt more alone than ever. He shared that this moment was truly a long time coming and he has no plans of halting anytime soon as he quips “Now I’m chilling with my gs and I’m feeling myself olorun”.
Arguably two of the most well-received songs on the project, “divine” and “star signs” Odunsi with the help of Davido and Runtown respectively, deliver outstanding performances and catchy hooks on the standout love numbers. At such a time, we could’ve never thought that the mainstream and the alternative would collide but Odunsi expertly delivers on both tracks, proving that he can take the sounds from popular culture and still make them his. For “divine”, while we have the smooth, mellow vocals from Odunsi and Sola King, Davido jumps into the track with his upbeat, energetic vocals and popular adlibs like “shekpe!”. The two boast of the kind of love they can provide, promising their love interest that is available as soon as they’re ready to receive it.
On the other hand, “star signs” sees a highlife-punk fusion where the pair of Odunsi and Runtown talk about the kind of girls they’re into. The hook “I’m in love with girls that like to party/Drink bacardi straight and talk about star signs” still stands as one of the most memorable ones to date. While the guitar riff by Efe Jazz is reminiscent of a ‘70s vinyl record, the bass by Kingsley Okorie of The Cavemen and the sickening production by Nosapollo transports us to an otherworldly realm where sounds exist for our listening pressure.
Taking us back with a slow-tempo track is “angel” assisted by Duendita where the pair express their love and affection to their significant other. On “take a break” however, Odunsi in Yoruba and English encourages a long-distance love to separate themselves from him, beckoning them to take a break from him. Like the Gemini he is, throughout the project, he provides many exciting outlooks and perspectives on love, leaving us wondering about his take on the topic. With collaborative numbers such as “express”, “green light” and “hectic”, we can point out a significant growth in not just in the sound and creative expression for Odunsi but with the other artists as well including Santi, SOLIS, 234Jaydaa, Amaarae and more.
At each moment in ‘rare.’, Odunsi (The Engine) is telling a story: our story. He uses his meticulous craftsmanship to tell the story of young people in Nigeria who are caught between the past and the uncertain future of our country. Stuck between two opposing worlds, he soundtracks our pains, relationships and lives using nostalgic elements from the ‘90s and ‘00s Nigerian music while also reaching for out-of-this-world Afro-Funk sound yet to be properly explored in these parts. Through funky basslines and delectable percussive and drum patterns, we’re reminded of the boy from Lagos with a dream and a mission to constantly redefine himself and carry the world along to the tune of his own drum. Three years on, not much has changed, we are still dancing to his tune which is constantly morphing from last year’s ‘Everything You Heard Is True’ and his collaborations with Zamir and MAISON2500.
Revisiting Odunsi’s genre-defying debut ‘rare.’ now almost feels like stepping into a time capsule where every song remains evergreen with each new listen. The time capsule in question provides not just a mirror to ‘80s Nigeria which Odunsi was heavily influenced by during the album’s curation but also reminiscent of a time where the singer was standing at the nascent stages of his career. Since then, the alternative scene has witnessed a remarkable growth of artists within that space as well as the introduction of many new artists that are consistently stretching the boundaries of what music from Africa should sound like.
Now, a more well-rounded artist and producer, Odunsi has stayed dedicated to the exploration of his craft, making sure to continuously experiment with new sounds and see what sticks. From “hectic” on ‘rare’ where he spotlights the talents of Amaarae, SOLIS and 234Jaydaa to DETO BLACK-assisted “body count” on ‘Everything You Heard Is True’, Odunsi still stays true to the inclusion of many talented women at his table. With more 2020 releases like “Decided” featuring Tems and “Fuji 5000”, Odunsi’s dedication to broadening the Afropop soundscape is clearer than ever.
Featured image credits/NATIVE