Our first impressions of Lady Donli’s ‘Pan African Rockstar’

Featuring Obongjayar, Kah-Lo, Pierre Kwenders & The Lagos Panic

There are more than a  handful of words to describe Lady Donli, but arguably the most apt is maverick. In about a decade since she started recording music, the Nigerian singer has matched to the beat of her own drum with a self-assured candour. After years cycling around Neo-Soul, R&B and glittery pop, she masterfully realigned her artistry with her 2019 debut album, ‘Enjoy Your Life’. Partly inspired by nostalgia, without being overly beholden to her influences, the project landed as a dazzling statement of unique, yet easily accessible, excellence.

In the years since, she’s cycled through another period of growing pains, partly triggered by the global pandemic. The EP, ‘W I L D’, emerged from all of that and its part-ruminative, part-invincible is testament to how Lady Donli coped and emerged from those times. For the last two years, she’s been clearing out space for her sophomore album, the newly-released ‘Pan African Rockstar’. In typical Donli manner, the title is  a statement on its own, which already creates a high bar of expectations. If the  lead singles, “Hello Lady” and “My Ability,” show anything, though, it’s that Donli is more self-assured than she’s ever been.

After our first listens, here are The NATIVE’s team of writers sharing their early thoughts on ‘Pan African Rockstar.’

Did you have any expectations of Lady Donli going into this album?

Uzoma: The only expectation I had going into this was good music—what direction Lady Donli would take, I did not know. “My Ability” got me hyped for the album because I liked the attitude she brought to the track and I sensed that the title ‘Pan African Rockstar’ replicated that energy. So yeah, I just expected to be treated to good music because Lady Donli is known for that.

Nwanneamaka: When I put ‘Pan African Rockstar’ on for the first spin, I was looking to see how well the synergy with her band, Lagos Panic, was reflected. In addition, I had hoped the album’s title would come into play on the track. So genre fusions from different parts all strung together by Rock elements. Finally, I was looking out for how this would contrast ‘Enjoy Your Life,’ especially considering how emphatic she is about thinking outside the box. After a first listen, I can say she ticked all those boxes effortlessly. There’s so much attention to detail with layering the vocals alongside the instrumentals. The pianist, drummer and most especially the guitarist are given so much room to shine. I also get several twinkles of Afropop, Highlife and Jazz so as far as genre fusion goes, this hits the mark. Finally, this sophomore effort starkly contrasts her debut. While she took on a lot of romance centred themes then, Donli is evidently focusing on herself here.


What song(s) stood out to you on first listen?

Emmanuel: Ah, a lot of the records did, especially because the sonics were so progressive. Sometimes you’d enter a new song and wouldn’t know, except you checked the track list. That said, the album is really a string of fantastic moments coming together to create something special. A standout record for me would be “Nothing2Something,” just because Lady Donli uses a lot of the sounds I know Obongjayar for. ‘PAR’ is like a less experimental extension of ‘Some Nights I Dream of Doors’, and I’d like to see more artists tinker with this punk-tinged sound. “The Bad Ones” is a pretty good record too; it’s a fine turning point towards the final movement of the album. 

Uzoma: “Your Fantasy” with Kah-Lo and “Nothing2Something” with Obongjayar. Kah-Lo entered the track with cockiness and I like the lyrics “You wan contest?/Oya, come test/Dis your wahala no know say I come first.” And I like how she and Lady Donli flowed on the track, complementing each other. On his part, Obongjayar didn’t disappoint on “Nothing2Something”—his voice is instantly arresting and the lyric “I’m not lucky, I’m working” resonated with me. I think both songs are true standouts.


What are your immediate thoughts on the musical choices?

Nwanneamaka: I can’t fault this. She does immense justice to the soundscapes she taps into all the while adding unique touches to make it her own. Not bombarding the album with so many features not only allows us to appreciate the ones that are there but leaves room for Lagos Panic to set the scene and for Lady Donli to talk her shit. A track list of 12 songs couldn’t be more perfect as well considering my ever dwindling attention span. She is able to cover so many themes in such little time and I appreciate her song titles and lyricism as well, very witty. It’s safe to say that Lady Donli has beat the sophomore slump. 

Dennis: At the risk of hyperbole, ‘Pan African Rockstar’ is the best produced Nigerian pop album I’ve heard this year. Change my mind, I dare you. Even the scope of Nigerian pop might be limiting, considering how truly pan-African its musical sources are, from Highlife and Soukous to Afrobeat and Konto. Most importantly, the sonic tapestry is greater than the sum of its parts; ‘Pan African Rockstar’ has a stunningly executed identity. None of it surprising, considering the quality of her great debut album, but it’s nothing short of awe-inspiring how she expands her purview—assisted by her band and several producers of course—without losing a step. There’s no doubt whose vision this is.


How well did the guest appearances enhance your first listen?

Uzoma: The guest appearances show intentionality on the part of Lady Donli. They all add different spices to the songs, making for a well-rounded project. As I mentioned earlier, Kah-Lo and Obongjayar do great work on their respective songs. So also Pierre Kwenders on “SAID,” with his combination of English and Lingala. Overall, the album has an eclectic taste of different genres and rhythms that Lady Donli handles very well.

Dennis: Four for four. Lady Donli doesn’t just share guest spots like they’re party packs, that much was instantly evident on ‘EYL’. The streak continues here, four perfect features. Kah-Lo is the baddest in the room, Obongjayar’s gritty soul is as warm as scotch hitting your belly, Pierre Kwenders sounds as vibrant as ever, and the Lagos Panic, at the risk of hyperbole again, could’ve been Africa ‘70 in another lifetime. Like I said, 4 over 4.


What’s the potential significance of ‘Pan African Rockstar’ to the ever-evolving artistry of Lady Donli?

Nwanneamaka: Throughout her career, Donli has emphatically expressed her rejection to be placed into a box. Every artist, at least the dedicated ones, are constantly striving to out-do themselves but Lady Donli’s effort is particularly admirable because you can tell she embraces experimentation even at the risk of failure. It’s natural for fans that fell in love with a particular facet of your artistry to have certain expectations. And when that facet is as commercially successful as ‘Enjoy Your Life,’ I can only imagine how difficult it is to stray away from that path. Having listened to ‘Pan African Rockstar,’ Amidst the ruckus in Nigeria’s music scene, a theme running strong through the 12-track course, it’s refreshing to see talents willing to stay true to themselves. 

Emmanuel: A band-generated sound has always been important to Lady Donli. On ‘Enjoy Your Life,’ it’s the amazing duo of The Cavemen. who provide its retro Highlife direction. It’s a miracle of evolution that ‘Pan African Rockstar’ embraces even more fullness in its direction, by adapting percussive patterns from other African countries while also expressing neo-punk sensibilities. In an era which celebrated more of pristine artistry, Lady Donli would be one of its champions. Sonically, visually, and philosophically, she’s made her music align, and this album signifies her expanding vision. Moving first from the familiar and now embracing a bit of the unknown, whatever she chooses to do next would benefit from the practicality of experience, and that’s a good place to be. Wait—that’s actually a great place to be.

ICYMI: How Lady Donli’s Collaborators Are Enjoying Their Lives