Johnny Drille took his time with his debut album, and it paid off

a culmination of surprises and little thrills

In the dying seconds of “SISTER,” the penultimate song off Johnny Drille’s recently released debut album, ‘Before We Fall Asleep’, Lagos-based on-air personality Douglas Jekan makes a sappy appearance, sharing glowing remarks for the singer and producer’s growth. Popularly known for championing artists and music on the alternative side of the Nigerian music spectrum, Jekan’s appraisal carries the sort of industry-related heft that might inspire a smidge of cynicism, but it’s ultimately fitting when weighed alongside the project itself.

To a significant extent, Before We Fall Asleep’ emphasises the subtle but profound ways Johnny Drille has grown. And, why not? Eight years ago, he appeared across regional continental screens as a contestant in the sixth edition of Project Fame West Africa, with a honeyed voice and an easygoing charm. Although his exit came around the season’s midway point, the singer began to garner attention for being a former contestant on a renowned talent show.

Generally, it can be very arduous for former talent show stars to translate the refined potential and fanfare they accrued from the show into a financially viable and creatively fulfilling music career. To be show-specific, the stats paint an even grimmer picture: After nine seasons, you can count the number of former Project Fame West Africa acts to impact Nigerian music on one hand: Iyanya, Chidinma, Niniola, Johnny Drille, and Chike. Only the former two won their respective seasons and, including Niniola, they had to adjust to their musical directions beyond the SING-first instincts ex-contestants earned on the show.

This extremely low turnover ratio was partly an effect of the times, a period in Nigerian music where the internet had yet to properly start playing a role in democratising the pop landscape and diversifying music tastes. With everything (perceived as) alternative to whatever was mainstream being received through an exotic lens, most talent show stars struggled to find a footing. In his circumstances, having left the show well before the final weeks, Johnny Drille faced an uphill climb towards meaningful stardom, and he didn’t exactly make it easier on himself. Where artists of his mould found ways to zig towards groovier musical styles for better chances at commercial success, Johnny zagged, leaning towards a folksy sound that set him on the outlier path.

In the immediate aftermath of his talent show experience, he spent evident time working on his craft, sporadically releasing covers of popular songs and experimenting with a variety of genres before choosing a sound heavily influenced by American Folk band, Mumford & Sons. “Wait For Me,” his official sophomore single released in 2015, brightened the gentlemanly and romantic charm he flashed when he graced Project Fame stages on those weekends. The self-produced song is a merger of twee instrumentation and sentimental vows, Johnny singing with an innocent verve over chugging guitar strums, arabesque strings, and an entirely grand atmosphere. “Wait For Me” effectively set the buzz going for Johnny Drille’s career and, alongside debut song “Love Don’t Lie,” it set the precedent for his identity as a folk artist.

Having caught Don Jazzy’s eye back in 2015 with a cover of Di’Ja’s smash hit, “Aww,” Johnny Drille signed with Mavin Records in early 2017, joining a powerhouse label notorious for honing and pushing out popstars. At first glance, the singer didn’t fit the typical billing for a Mavin act, and it was expected by many that his sound might be hugely refurbished to achieve the sort of commercial impact expected by artists on the label. Each subsequent release proved those predictions wrong, however, starting with a cinematic music video for “Wait For Me,” a visual storyline whose arch was extended with the similarly-toned single, “Romeo & Juliet.”

Announced alongside twin pop duo DNA Twins and Ladipoe, the first rap artist to be signed by the enigmatic Svengali, Johnny Drille’s entrance into Mavin Records is a marker of the label’s transitional period. With a reputation for solely incubating pop superstars, Don Jazzy’s acquisition of artists who had already defined their creative identities was an indicator of a willingness to diversify his approach to mentoring, allowing artists to work within the sonic setting they preferred. In the four-and-a-half years he’s been at Mavin, there’s been no signs Johnny Drille has been pressured to adjust his sound.

The signs of a Johnny Drille song are tellingly consistent, especially in the way it can be described: ornate singing, clean production with live instrumentation, and blue-eyed lyricism that romanticises every emotion. In profiles and amongst listeners, there’s always an emphasis on his music being different from mainstream Afropop, a compliment aimed at the perception of his music being high IQ stuff—one that could also be a little underhanded.

Different doesn’t always mean exciting, and very few people would consider Johnny’s music as exciting. He often makes songs heavy on geniality, a capsule for fairy-tale romance and Utopian ideals, leaving little room for complex, lived-in expressions. None of this insinuates that the songs he made in the years before his album were hollow: The Simi-assisted “Halleluya” is a gleaming ode to people who still use the word “courting,” and there’s his warm epic to fathers on “Papa.” However, Before We Fall Asleep fills the critical spaces of his past music.

One of the great triumphs of BWFA is that it significantly adjusts the signs of a Johnny Drille song. The singing is still ornate for the most part, the production is still replete with live instruments, but the writing is far more curious, as is its soundscape. The album doesn’t entirely blow up the tenets of Johnny’s artistry as much as it reupholsters them, a retuning that presents surprises and little thrills which culminate into a whelming portrait and statement of growth.

Like the bulk of his prior catalogue, the singer’s debut LP is substantially skewed towards romantic concerns, but there’s a slight but weighty adjustment in the way he sings about love. Born and raised by two parents he saw dot on each other all his life, Johnny’s upbringing clearly affects his views on finding and being in love—he’s declared that he wants what his parents have. As noble as this outlook is, times have changed and romance has become a lot more fragmented than they were three decades ago. Usually, Johnny’s love songs seem like they’re suspended in a realm untouched by the modern realities of dating, but he punctures that bubble on BWFA to compelling effect.

“Loving is harder than they show you/you’ll never know until you’ve been bruised and burned,” he confesses on lead single, “loving is harder.” It’s a cutting lyric, fitting for a song where the picture he paints is that of a relationship with emotional difficulties. Singing over acoustic guitar strums, aqueous piano chords, gently thudding drums and shrieking horns, Johnny varies his vocal performance to encapsulate the weight of thematic concern, moving from a snappy flow to a falsetto and hoarse melodic runs on the chorus. While he’s skirted around R&B inflections in previous songs, “loving is harder” is Johnny’s first R&B song, and its captivating nature is emblematic of his willingness on BWFA to open his songs up to reality and give into the performance required of these songs.

Largely self-produced, the album rides on a push-and-pull between Johnny’s instincts and a willingness to experiment well enough to shake things up. “At some point last year I started to experiment a lot. I love folk music, that’s the background for me, but I started to dabble more into Afrobeats, which is a big sound in Africa right now,” he recently told MusicRadar. “And it helped open my eyes to what the possibilities were and what I could do with music. I didn’t think I was this versatile to be honest, until I started to use different kinds of sounds.”

This explanation is evident in the range of musical stylings he works with on BWFA. “ludo” is the closest Johnny Drille has ever been to the centre of mainstream Nigerian pop music, a catchy cut that teeters on the edge of anti-love. The Don Jazzy-assisted standout, “Ova,” filters pop-rock through an Afropop sieve, complete with a reference to last year’s ill-fated, social media-led symposium of “sting men.” Nigeria’s premier boy band Styl Plus joins in on “Odo,” a song clearly inspired by the same turn-of-the-millennium, guitar-led pop that his guests translated in Nigerian settings at their very best.

All three songs dig into varying facets of love—being played, desperate heave to save a relationship from hitting the rocks, and an affirmation of devotion—but what they all have in common is an approach that comes across as lived-in, a clear acknowledgement of the twists and pitfalls romantic vulnerability comes with. BWFA was followed shortly by a short film, “LIZA,” which dramatizes a traditionally frowned upon love affair. Featuring a revelatory performance by Onyinye Odokoro in the titular role, as well as cameos of Don Jazzy and Johnny Drille performing the album’s penultimate cut, “SISTER,” the film ends with a shocking twist that the singer’s former starry-eyed tendencies probably wouldn’t have allowed.

Even when he’s settles into his trademark sonic tricks, this outlook still stays: On the acoustic ballad, “BEFORE I LET GO,” Johnny paints the desolate picture of partners who are now “two songs on different keys.” When the utterly gorgeous “SWEET AS A MOTHER’S LOVE,” produced by British multi-genre artist Fink, eases in on the album’s backend, Johnny’s ecstatic representation of thriving in healthy relationship feels earned and is refreshing to hear.

BWFA doesn’t change Johnny Drille’s persona as a romantic at heart, but it highlights how far from quixotic he’s gotten. In the trailer for the album, he shares that he’s gone through his fair share of personal trials and they’ve clearly informed the music. He’s not quick to share the shades of those struggles, but he comes across as someone who’s endured, and is still enduring, the bumps and bruises of love and life. This doesn’t make him an avatar for people to project their feelings, as much as it makes him far more relatable than solely being a preacher of love.

The two-song run of “LIES (To Whom it May Concern)” and “lost in the rhythm” epitomises just that. On the former, inspired by last year’s protests against police brutality, he rails against a system that continues to press against the hopes and dreams of its youth. The latter paints an affecting picture of a young man who continues to brave unfair odds, in the face of a dysfunctional society. These are emotions many young Nigerians, who form the core of Johnny’s supporters, are experiencing, and while no one expects the singer to be a socially conscientious voice, his tilt towards realism brings him closer to listeners.

It’s why comments like Jekan’s are apt and have trailed BWFA so far. Even though it took him six years after his debut single and four-plus years after being signed to a label, the album is worthy of its time in incubation. When he vows to “never sell my soul” on the closing track, both as a rebuke to toxic romance and the notion of tainting his musical purpose, it’s declaration rooted in moving forward while finding ways to retain the essence of what has always made John Ighodaro, Johnny Drille.

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.