How Asa has explored romance and relationships over the years

A profound reminder that the iconic singer remains unique—even with her softened temperament.

No one could accuse Asa of optimism when she released her eponymous debut album back in 2007. On the now-iconic cover, there’s an immediately arresting photo of the singer born Bukola Elemide, part of her swinging dreads frozen in the air and her mouth wide open, as if she was captured while yelling, or wailing, or somewhere in between. For a moment, maybe you could read her expression as ecstasy, but when the first words sung on the LP are, “I’m in chains, you’re in chains too,” any notion of pleasure flies out of the window.

Album covers have always been a great way to envisage the thematic disposition of an Asa album, from the glossy, touched-up portrait of the pop-rock fare, ‘Beautiful Imperfection’, to her stoic demeanour on the inquisitive ‘Bed of Stone’. In her more recent work, Asa has become far less heady, as evidenced by the breeziness of 2022’s ‘V’ and her most recent single, “Odo,” a sweetly-scented ballad dipped in the honey and warmth of being romantically adored.

Perhaps, it makes a lot of sense that a 41-year old, now-seminal figure would be far less likely to probe everything and be more comfortable with embracing their own definition of wholesomeness. That’s what Asa’s last album and latest single seem to signify, with their overt focus on personal joy and fulfilling relationships, intimate kinds of ecstasy. This shift is nowhere more striking than her approach to making songs about love, a subject Asa has often treated with an engaging level of complexity.

Amidst the existential uncertainty of “Fire on the Mountain” and “No One knows,” as well as the bracing reverence in “So Beautiful” and “Iba,” there wasn’t too much digging into romantic love but you could hear cynicism with which she approached the subject, especially on “Subway.” Referencing the lessons she picked up from her mother, Asa describes falling in love as a transient feeling, a situation that inevitably seems to lead to emotional doom. It carries over into the other related songs in ‘Asa’.

One of the other two songs in that range is “Awe,” a telenovela-ready tale of paternal abandonment. The other is “Bibanke,” a misery-filled portrait in the throes of a heart-rending breakup. “I could cry you a river, I could cry you a waterfall,” she sang in the coda of a live rendition while performing in Paris just over a year after the release of ‘Asa’, a version I often return to for how it wrings out even more misery.

It is often said that an artist has their entire life to pull from in making their first album, which leads to deeply rooted expressions, and in the case of ‘Asa’ it was disillusionment. It’s not that she believed there was no joy to be found in loving someone wholeheartedly, but she saw through the madness of the world on that album, and that carried over into all the hurt she poured into “Bibanke.” Whether the experience that informed the song was Asa’s or not didn’t matter, she was angsty enough to share the same sentiment as Peyton Sawyer: People always leave.

For her sophomore album, ‘Beautiful Imperfection’, Asa was much more chipper. The change was drastic—maybe too drastic for some. In the video for lead single, “Be My Man,” Asa danced and slid across the counter of a restaurant, glasses double the size of what she wore before and colours popping all around her, as she proposed unreserved  reciprocity. What changed? The answer is most likely in the album’s intro, “Why Can’t We,” a song where she openly canvases for happiness, aided by the sagely advice of a friend. “Why not have some fun when you’re still young and still ok?”

It’s not that Asa was buying into a delusion, she was simply choosing to move from cynicism to excitement, embracing the brighter hues of life without being oblivious to the madness. “This world is full of pain,” she sings on “Maybe,” ultimately choosing to emanate positivity. As far as love, “Be My Man” is where all the giddiness stops. “Bimpe,” spiritual kin with “Awe,” mentions being in a relationship but only within the context of being deeply annoyed with the sister of her partner. Similarly, “Baby Gone” is kin with “Bibanke,” except this time Asa is ruing not being a better partner to a man who deeply cherished her.

Even with these few relationship-themed songs, the trademark profoundness in Asa’s writing and singing carried over, and what was most moving to glean was the singer’s innate understanding of how effort goes both ways, as well as the self-acceptance needed to nurture affection. To the latter point: “I always give love, never thought I deserved/To be the one to get love,” she sang on “How did Love Find Me,” a mid-album ballad from 2014’s ‘Bed of Stone’.

Compared to her previous albums, Asa was more even-keeled on her third LP, if more complex as a person. That manifests itself in songs that range in emotions, from the confrontational, no-fucks-given attitude of lead single “Dead Again,” to the rousing exultations of “Eyo” and “New Year,” and the customary ruminations on the title track and a song even titled “Sometimes I Wonder.”

More than before, ‘Bed of  Stone’ felt pointedly personal. Not that she had ever dabbled in mythos, but Asa seemed to make the point that she dealt with being human at the most sensitive levels, keenly aware of her own insecurities. On “The One That Never Comes,” she pleads with a person whose affection she can’t seem to reciprocate – at least not with the same intensity – asking them to move on. Depending on who you ask, there’s a certain grace in not leading a person on, the kind of reality check that goes both ways, since making that decision also confronts you with questions that need answers.

Emerging five years later with her fourth album, ‘Lucid’, Asa seemed far more at ease. It wasn’t necessarily that she may or may not have found answers, it’s that she seemed to have embraced the flaws of the human condition in our search for satisfaction. On the album, she sang of love as a risk worth taking, even if there’s the possibility a relationship will end on unceremonious, particularly mournful terms. On “Femi Mo,” she sings of the demise of a ten-year relationship from the perspective of the dumped partner, and the closer “My Dear,” she’s the bride left at the altar on her wedding day.

Balancing those romantically fatal narratives on ‘Lucid’, Asa sang some of her most euphoric love songs till that point, from the destination-hopping cheeriness of “You and Me” to the brassy anthem, “Until We Try (This Lo’).” Those were the precursors for the overall atmosphere of joy that hangs over ‘V’. In the period between, Asa was more outward-facing, showing herself to be a much lighter, vivacious person than many thought she was. She played virtual live sets during the Covid-19 lockdown, hung out and worked with younger artists who not only indulged her whimsical side, but actively encouraged it.

In a recent video shared to her social media, Benjamin Okorie, of Highlife-fusion brother duo the Cavemen., participates in a theatrical dance to “Oddo,” prancing around and behind Asa while the lyrics, “Money don’t impress me/I just need someone who complements me,” coos loudly in the background. Clearly, “Oddo” is tied to ‘V’, where she sings of wanting to be shown off by her person, and describes a romantic partner as the “Ocean.”

In a career that has spanned two decades and counting, Asa has explored what it means to love and be loved from a forthright outlook and a dreamy perspective. At a time when the complexity of romantic relationships is at the core of music, her shift towards something purer and easier feels alternative to the norm, which, more than anything, proves Asa doesn’t even need to try to be unique—even if her temperament has changed over the years.

[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]