Review: Spinall’s ‘Top Boy’

Without any recency bias, this is arguably the producer and curator's finest showing yet.

The world of a DJ is contrasting. One second you’re the life of the party, the subject of everyone’s attention and then the next, the music claims everything, leaving you where you started: as just another person in a crowd. Even with the nearby reminder that disc jockeys aren’t considered a part of the creative process as they should be, you’ll hardly find an active DJ ready to relinquish the transcendent thrill of soundtracking cherished moments.

Definitely not SPINALL, whose breakout was announced through a slew of projects. Less ambitious than eye-catching, he was marking territory in a field notably shy of accomplished players. DJ Jimmy Jatt and DJ Neptune were home-facing veterans still pushing their craft in productive directions, DJ Xclusive was courting the posh circles of Nigeria’s elite class, Chocolate City and M.I Abaga were positioning DJ Lambo in the figure of label elder and curator, and there was Spinall—cap-donning, culture-appraising Spinall, whose debut record “Gba Gbe” had Burna Boy deliver one of his most groovy performances ever. Upon releasing ‘Grace’ in December 2020, Spinall had five albums, a consistency unmatched by any of his contemporaries. During that run, he quietly took off the ‘DJ’ prefix from his name.

Spinall’s resilience has stood him out from his class. Perhaps his background in media helps, but the act born Oluseye Sodamola has always moved with an eye on the external reception of his brand, sometimes even to the music’s detriment. Holistic branding has been courted in non-musician industry players since Denrele had his afro and DJ Sose his face tattoos, but few DJs have struck a better balance between musical evolution and intentional imagery. In the early years of his career, Spinall did have a couple of hits; “Excuse Me” had the inimitable fingerprint of Timaya on its scorching street pop-meets-dancehall production while “Ohema” would come just a year later, connecting Mr Eazi’s Ghana-indebted lingua with Nigeria’s sonic bounce, a pairing that proved successful as that became Spinall’s first bonafide hit.

In 2023, Spinall’s relevance to the culture exceeds musical qualifications. Corporate partnerships have broadened his networking reach and with the steady proliferation of Afrobeats into global cultural frameworks, Spinall has been consistent at the forefront of events. From the One Music Africa fest to Afro Nation and most recently MTV Europe awards, Spinall’s trailblazing journey continues to inspire a forthcoming generation of curators and disc jockeys.

“If na aki alcohol o make we shack am no be small,” Wizkid sings on “Nowo” off the ‘Iyanu’ album. That fleeting sense of revelry has always been present in Spinall’s projects, constructing feel-good capsules rather than narrative progression. On his sixth album ‘Top Boy,’ Spinall is the most accomplished he’s been in that regard. A desire to wean the best from life remains a dominant focus, but Spinall’s guests enjoy more free reign than ever. “Give Me Love” sees Niniola wielding her vocals with novel sensitivity as she demands more from a lover. The understated quality of the log drums allows her to take on more responsibility, and it’s one she relishes. Minz plays similarly on “Every Day,” riding the mellow production with natural-sounding confidence. “Na only things wey I like I dey do,” he sings in a way that takes the edge off the anti-establishment stance he adopts in the verses.

On first listen, the songs on ‘Top Boy’ that stand out the most are the solo recordings. Spinall has an eye for the originals, and like any good collaborator, he executes his vision by meeting them halfway. Co-written with Olamide, “Palazzo” was a crucial part of Asake’s domineering run last year, with rap cadences meeting Fuji’s lyrical ingenuity in the sweetest pockets possible. Its strength holds up on the album. Amaarae and Jess of the VanJess duo deliver tonally diverse but structurally exquisite records on “Bow Down” and “Just To Be” respectively.

The latter’s jazzy touch culminates in a sensual horn solo, while the singer’s performance dazzles with a ballerina’s finesse. It’s a fine ode to companionship, almost the thematic opposite of Amaarae’s. The eccentric Ghanaian upholds superiority rather than intimacy, bringing the desired lifestyle to life through razor-sharp witticisms. “Baby would you whine your waist on me?/Feel like God’s giving praise to me,” she sings before the assertive chorus, giving the ‘bow down’ that follows a slightly sexual undertone, not the first time a musician would construct imagery with religious and sensual parallels. Adekunle Gold finds himself in lush, comforting plains on “Cloud 9”; over a saccharine, Highlife-tinged beat, he sings lovingly about everything from a woman’s seductive poise to his longtime friendship with Spinall. A feel-good record that instantly stands out, it’s one of the simpler and better performances on the album.

Spinall also makes some interesting pairings on ‘Top Boy.’ Frequently, he attempts to connect blocs of diaspora-based musicians to Africa’s home base. Stefflon Don’s Caribbean roots find great space in the Dancehall-paced production of “Oshey,” while BNXN’s songbird approach embeds Nigeria’s distinct trait onto the record. “Power” and “Sere (Remix)” brilliantly utilises Summer Walker and 6LACKs cool American R&B vibe, although the ‘Still Over It’ musician finds herself in the more pensive soundscape of electronic. And while Olamide and Kemuel are perfectly aligned on “Bunda,” just as Azanti and Zaiam are on the opener “Cruise,” it’s important that Spinall gets such a grasp on records featuring non-Nigerian African artists.

In the past, Spinall has attempted cross-country pairings which notably featured Mafikizolo and Sarkodie on his records but their peculiarities weren’t honed into, making the collaborations sound too much of a calculated pairing and lacking any excitement. Chemistry informs the choices here—Ntosh Gazi would seldom be the first name one associates with a Phyno and Reekado Banks song, but on “Top Mama,” his energetic, hype man-esque vocalisations burnishes its credibility. Amapiano is not new to Nigerian artists but there’s an originality that arises when its drums are paired with the primal language. “Outside” joins Blxckie’s melodic prowess with the crisp flows of LADIPOE, perhaps the most natural collaboration on the tape. The former’s soulful adlibs feed the aspirational zest of the latter, enriching the record with feel-good quality that shines on subsequent listens. Tay Iwar carries as much heft on “Honest,” a warm entry which builds on the vulnerable narratives he’s increasingly become known for in Afropop circles.

For someone who’s made the ‘top boy’ phrase his associative tag for a long time, this project carries the intimacy of an eponymous work. Spinall’s hand is everywhere. The sequencing bares his growth: from how the album portrays self-love and confidence in unique snapshots to the music’s progressive warmth which builds an internal rhythm. With his own production heavily featuring, ‘Top Boy’ shines with deliberation. Spinall also gets props for extending the grace of previous albums by pairing artists at different stages of their careers, essentially pushing everyone to perform at a very high level. Whether it’s Jess’ affectionate coos on “Just To Be” or Nasty C’s zesty affirmations unlocking heavenly pockets on “Power (Refix),” there’s a sense the musician wants to deliver on their slots.

Without any doubt of recency bias, ‘Top Boy’ is arguably the best album Spinall has created. The choices he makes bring his expanding skills into focus, most especially the connection he reveals in African and diaspora sounds. And, as though knowing he’s done enough in the curation, Spinall keeps himself out of the music for the most part. Cut with minimalism, a few adlibs mark his only vocal contributions. As a DJ, it’s always tempting to establish a presence through the random shoutout or namecheck, but Spinall’s lean direction reveals an alternative route. He’s more a producer and curator than ever, and with the fine polishing befitting of his profile, he creates the project that finally solidifies his artistry.