Review: ‘The Year I Turned 21’ by Ayra Starr

she makes a case for multiplicity, sonic mastery and global domination, and she emerges victorious.

When we first encountered Ayra Starr, she gripped a yellow solo cup and stood amidst a wall of colored stickers, as though she were a clipping in a scrapbook. Her self-titled debut, the ‘Ayra Starr’ EP, unveiled an act as fresh as air, whose ethos was youth-centric without pandering, whose feel was girl-next-door to the core, and whose sound was wistful in a way that we had hardly before heard. With the whimsical romance of “Sare” and the unrelenting yearning of “Memories,” she offered lyrics that carried so much youthful sincerity, one could imagine that she had hand-written them in a sticker-filled journal, sprawled across a tastefully disheveled mattress with her legs crossed in the air. Her debut project may have dropped on the same evening that she was officially announced as Mavin Records’ newest signee, but the masses did not require much convincing. In a single night, a star(r) was born.

Her airtight branding was, in part, the product of over a year spent in Mavin’s artist development academy, but it was also a direct reflection of Ayra’s irresistible allure. Following the success of her 2021 debut, she quickly morphed from local phenomenon into a continental and global flagbearer for Nigerian music. Her debut album, 19 & Dangerous,’ cemented her role as a Gen-Z sounding board, with its mega-hit “Bloody Samaritan” marking a shift: Ayra Starr could make soulful bedroom Afropop, and she could make global hits, too. The likes of “Sability,” “Commas,” and “Rush” have hauled her name across borders, the latter securing her a coveted Grammy nomination in this year’s inaugural Best African Music Performance category. Her global reach is clear, as her three-year career has seen her secure features from around the world with Tyla, Kelly Rowland, David Guetta, Morocco’s El Grande Toto, and most recently, Puerto Rican reggaetonero Rauw Alejandro. The artist who was once a girl-next-door has formally evolved into a global brand that cannot be restrained; and this year, she is officially coming of age.

The Year I Turned 21, Ayra Starr’s newest project, seems to chart the artist at a pivotal turning point; one that sees her, literally, come of age, and figuratively, step into a new era of superstardom. “Birds Sing of Money,” the project’s intro, encapsulates this shift, beginning with warbled praises from a Fuji vocalist before Ayra proclaims that she “runs her city” and that “money makes the rain come.” The track presents a marked shift from the ‘19 & Dangerous’ intro “Cast (Gen-Z Anthem),” which opened with an introspective Eartha Kitt quote and encouraged youth liberation. With its emphasis on dominance, “Birds Sing of Money” instead positions Ayra as its focus, proclaiming her power to be limitless.

Its focus on money unintentionally alludes to mounting commentary about Ayra’s pop offerings, and how their seeming emphasis on commercial success creates a stark contrast with the thoughtful musings that defined her in her debut EP. “Birds Sing of Money,” however, seems to provide a response to this sentiment: her sonic evolution is a testament to her unending starpower, and as such it cannot be stopped. In her own words, “I don’t watch my tone / because I like how it sounds.” While the song is not as strong sonically as its predecessor on her first album, it appropriately primes audiences for the slant of this project.

Tracks like “Woman Commando” reflect the balance between the commercial and this strategic usage of “starpower.” With pulsing Amapiano production from Grammy-nominated producer Ragee, and lyricism about popping Hennessy at tables, the track is nothing if not club-ready. However, Ayra weaponizes this digestibility to “feminize” Afropop. The club night in question is a “ladies’ night,” and Ayra rounds up a collection of her “woman commandos” in the form of Brazilian megastar Anitta and R&B sweetheart Coco Jones. Calling these global acts to her world – Coco adapting to Afrobeats with such ease that it nearly calls her identity into question – the track creates an argument about cross-continental connection while placing womanhood at its thematic center.

The pre-released “Bad Vibes,” combining sultry verses with a crowd-backed chorus and an assist from Seyi Vibez, skillfully rides the demarcation between the widely consumable and the authentic Ayra. “Goodbye” with Asake recruits yet another national treasure of Nigerian streep-pop, and Mr. Money meets Ayra in her sonic comfort zone in an expertly produced track about ditching an ex-flame. While the track almost begs for a more fitting feature to amplify Ayra’s smooth offering, Asake does his best on what will undoubtedly be a standout hit from the project. Even amidst a competitive set of commercial tracks from the project, “Jazzy’s Song” takes the lead. Ayra pays homage to label boss Don Jazzy by interpolating the intro of Wande Coal’s “You Bad” – which was masterminded by Jazzy himself – in her song’s chorus. With “Jazzy’s Song,” Ayra presents a club banger and a summer song all in one, and in the same breath links contemporary Nigerian pop with its foundational past. Even with only half of 2024 gone, one does not need to be a prophet to imagine a future in which “Jazzy’s Song” becomes a solid contender for song of the year. 

With plenty of reflective offerings, the project also quells critics’ fears about Ayra becoming lost to the mainstream. “Lagos Love Story” takes a leaf out “Beggie Beggie”s book, beautifully conveying the mundanities of young Nigerian romance. Her paramours take a sour turn with “Last Heartbreak Song, where she croons longingly about unrequited love over Afro-R&B production from her longtime collaborator Louddaaa. American R&B act, Giveon, smoothly coats the second verse in his rich baritone, making Ayra two for two where her American features are concerned.

“1942, a haunting number underpinned by an emotive guitar, sees her lament the loss of dwindling youth. Ayra declares that “this moment makes it all worth it/all the time we put into the job,” and her journey as a girl crossing over into adulthood seems to parallel directly with her growth as an artist who is blooming in real time. The track also features her brother Milar, a close collaborator from Ayra’s youth whose songwriting featured on ‘19 & Dangerous’. While his vocals on “1942” offer little to the song, his presence provides an added sense of intimacy to the story that Ayra tells. The song is something like a final message to herself before she crosses over into superstardom, almost implying that once she steps into the new, she might have to bid farewell to her old self forever. 

Rounding off the project, “The Kids Are Alright” tackles Ayra’s career from a deeply personal lens. Including audio from her, her mother, and her siblings, Ayra dedicates the entire song to her late father, to whom she cries out, “Hope you can see what I turned into/hope I’m out here making you proud.” While thematically, it sits in stark contrast with the rest of the songs on the album, “The Kids are All Right” provides critical context about just who the Ayra Starr journey is for. It is not one that she embarks upon blindly, seeking fame for fame’s sake. It is instead a quest that the artist engages in with intentionality, wholly aware that she has a lineage behind her and below her, lifting her up.

‘The Year I Turned 21’ is an exploration in equilibrium, one that aims to prove the unstoppable dominance of Ayra Starr, the phenomenon across sounds, demographics, and continents. With less sonic cohesion than her tight-knit debut album, the project is in part a testament to growing pains. But with hit tracks a-plenty across all sides of the sonic spectrum, ‘The Year I Turned 21’ renders indisputable the limitless nature of Ayra’s capabilities. She has, after all, been a gem from the onset, one so clearly destined for global prominence that stardom practically oozes from all that she touches. With this sophomore project, she makes a case for multiplicity, for sonic mastery, and for global domination, and she emerges victorious.

[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]