Shallipopi’s ‘Shakespopi’ Album Review

Shakespopi keeps up Shallipopi’s insouciant streak but how much longer can he maintain his hypnotic grasp on a weaning audience?

Consciously or inadvertently, Shallipopi is always toying with gimmicks. It’s a fascinating ploy that has worked in his favour. So far, the Benin-born star has edged his way to the apex of Afropop thanks, in part, to the quotable quirks that litter his music, his jocular personality, and the community-building zest of his Plutomania shtick that has landed perfectly with a Nigerian-majority audience that’s both enamored with and cautious of what he represents. From the very beginning of his mainstream explosion, the singer’s playful interpretation of street-pop–and the ascendancy it afforded him–have been viewed with suspicion by listeners and critics alike concerned with the quality control of Afropop and the politics of who gets to be heard and played widely.

For the singer, it’s been quite an unbelievable rise to popularity. Shallipopi was still living in Benin and harboring cautiously-guarded dreams of music superstardom when he self-released his breakout single, “Elon Musk,” early in 2023. First finding a niche audience in TikTok’s street-pop-consuming TrenchTok community, “Elon Musk” was initially pigeon-holed as a fraud-adjacent one-time hit. But something about Shallipopi’s teasing drawl, the novel unfamiliarity of South-South street-pop, and BusyPluto’s exhilarating meld of amapiano sonics and twinkling flutes soon made the song an inescapable presence at parties and events, setting the stage for Shallipopi’s rise to national prominence.

Still, things could have all gone horribly wrong for the singer. A May 2023 brush with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) who accused him of internet-related fraud gave credence to the widely-held theory that the inferred meaning of “Elon Musk” lifted directly from his lived experience. His stint with the EFCC was, however, short-lived and culminated with the release of “Ex Convict,” a flippant tongue out that made light of the prevailing narratives swirling around about his alleged criminality and the EFCC affair. It all made the arrival of his debut project, ‘Planet Pluto,’ even more anticipated. Anchored by BusyPluto’s chromatic instrumentals and deft sample choices, listening through the six songs felt like crash-landing into the very heart of Crown Uzama’s id as he navigated his cultural identity, the vestiges of his past life in Benin, and the new lease on life that his freshly-minted stardom afforded him.

Linking up with Dvpper made the prospect of the release of a debut album a foregone conclusion and, when ‘Presido La Pluto’ hit streaming in November, fans and cynics alike approached it with a cautious optimism, hopeful that the singer could expand on the whimsical-yet-engrossing personality and Benin heritage that ‘Planet Pluto’ hinted at. It’s a promise that went largely unfulfilled: the edgy, shining beats supplied by BusyPluto were dulled by an uninspired navel-gazing that consumed the better part of the 13-tracker with very few exceptions like the ODUMODUBLVCK-featuring “Cast,” the previously-released “Things On Things,” and a balmy collab with Tekno on “So What.”

Social media criticism of ODUMODUBLVCK’s verse on “Cast” propelled the song to ubiquity at just the right time and this, combined with the sheer cultural mass of Shallipopi’s influence in 2023, furthered the breakout star’s winning streak into December, Nigeria’s most packed party season. The Shallipopi industrial factory has thrummed on, sharing outtakes from studio sessions with Wizkid, ArrDee, and Rema while hinting at an extensive collaboration with the latter (who shares his Benin ancestry) to the delight of listeners. A lean start to the year for Nigerian music in 2024 opened the field for Shallipopi to make the first major statement of the year and it’s an opportunity he has taken eagerly to release his sophomore album, Shakespopi.

With a title inspired by a running Internet joke about Shallipopi’s writing skills being superior to that of British poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, the singer is clearly leaning into the aspects of his online persona that make him engaging, while conducting a real-time survey on his staying power and reach. There are parallels for what Shallipopi is trying to do on Shakespopi in other fields: a heat check is one of the most exciting things to watch in basketball as a confident player tries a series of challenging shots to confirm a successful streak. A sense of invincibility is at play throughout Shakespopi which offers everything you might expect from a Shallipopi project: a carefully curated selection of beats, flipped samples that pay homage to his Benin heritage, a comical interpolation of a popular rhythm, chest-thumping bars about his success disguised as casual musings on life, and some pointed reflections on his relationships with people from his past.

If Shallipopi has learned anything from his time at the top of Afropop, it is the predictability of the genre’s routines. The singer has a template that has consistently delivered his definition of success–hit songs to tour off–in the last 18 months and he clings to it fiercely on Shakespopi with only slight tweaks from place to place. Lead single, “ASAP,” is a stylistic throwback to ‘Planet Pluto’’s most enthralling listen “Obapluto,” which received critical praise for spotlighting the ageless work of Pa Monday Edo and the Osemwegie Ebohon Theatre International Troupe.

“ASAP” samples the work of another Edo legend, Alhaji Waziri Oshomah and his Traditional Sound Makers whose Afemai music style was a huge draw in the ‘70s. The clever sample of “Ikwekiame Nedumhe” is an inverse of the downstated approach favoured on “Obapluto.” Here, instead of letting his vocals sit over the sampled material, Shallipopi makes the song wholly his, rattling off about his hit-making prowess and the allure of his financial security before looping in the instantly quotable line, “Na Shalli dey write but na Shakespeare dey shake,” for extra effect. It’s a gambit that works for one of ‘Shakespopi’’s most enjoyable listens.

Still, there is a BusyPluto-sized hole at the heart of Shakespopi; the fellow Benin native has helped shape Shallipopi’s sound–the snarly flow, warbled texture, and charismatic fusion of hip-hop and log drums–since he captured mainstream attention. With BusyPluto taking a backseat here, rising producers, Producer X and larrylanes, attempt to imbue Shallipopi’s street-savvy south-south sound with a south-west street-pop sensibility. There are orchestral horn arrangements and traditional drum patterns dexterously woven to urge Shallipopi to a new level and mitigate his writing inadequacies. The instrumental for “New Cat” is a case in point: Shallipopi’s vocals are stacked atop a bouncy beat showing a potential for a strong song in the opening one-minute stretch before the singer regurgitates tired talking points.

There is justifiable criticism for Shallipopi’s improvisational writing style which is often marked by a lack of rigour or could be interpreted as wanting for effort. In one interview from 2023, he admitted to recording all the songs on ‘Planet Pluto’ in a two-hour stretch and it’s not difficult to imagine that some of the songs on ‘Shakespopi’ came to life off the same approach. The malaise of listening to the jarring delivery pattern of “Start Am” fully unfolds around the same time that Shallipopi whispers, “Are you 21 Savage or Tiwa Savage?” It’s an instructive moment that reveals the lengths that Shallipopi will go to stitch words together and the well-earned apprehension he gets from purists and listeners in the know.

Persistence pays and a look through Shallipopi’s catalogue pre-“Elon Musk,” shows the mark of a grifter prepared to take shot after shot in the hope of sinking one. It’s a trait that has played an important role in humanising him to his Nigerian audience and inspiring some of his best work. No song quite channels that impulse like the sticky-sweet “Dey,” where Shallipopi’s verses, ad-libs, and flow coalesce for a thesis on his grind and peace of mind. “Billion” also feels like a fruit of that tenacity; it’s also undeniably the highlight of ‘Shakespopi.’ There is a refreshing clarity of thought and execution to “Billion” that signals last year’s “Speedometer.” The pacing is different but Shallipopi is similarly supercharging his journey while sharing the spotlight with a roll call of talented acts. Zerry DL pays an emotive homage to the Plutomania movement and his testy journey to material success in tandem with fellow Plutomina Records associates, Tega Boi DC and Jeneral, before Reehaa wraps things up with a soulful interlude.

Left to his own devices, Shallipopi will invariably fall into the excessively trite aspects of his formulaic approach to music. “Hightension” interpolates the melody of Manu Pilas’ “Bella Ciao,” off the soundtrack of Netflix’s hit show, Money Heist. It is a spiritual twin to “Oscroh (Pepperline)” off ‘Presido La Pluto’ but it feels like a cheap and callow attempt to reverse-engineer a hit off nostalgia, pure shock value, and the diatribes it can inspire in online circles.

For all its inadequacies, though, Shallipopi is seriously making an effort on most of ‘Shakespopi.’ The writing is more layered than it has been at any moment in his career so far. “Find Me” and “Trees” are proof of this marked improvement even if only the latter manages to further the narrative of the singer’s journey in any discernible fashion. The pitfalls of his staid approach are all too clear to see: there are very few interesting experiences for Shallipopi to to draw off like he did on “Ex Convict,” flipping his brush with the EFCC into a conspiratorial middle finger at law enforcement; and no matter how irreverent slangs and quirks sound, their novelty is bound to peter off.

The thing about heat checks is this: at some point, human infallibility comes into play and a shooter misses a basket. It’s the same with gimmicks, they eventually stop moving the audience in any excitable fashion and all that’s left is a sense of incredulity at what one is witnessing. Shallipopi is playing a delicate game with his audience and ‘Shakespopi’ is a furtherance of his heat check with an audience doubling as a baying crowd with their eyes trained on the rim, watching for how this new shot lands. So, we wait with not-so-bated breath and wonder how much longer the gimmick can last for.