Lady Donli is set to unveil another layer of her artistry with ‘Pan African Rockstar’
Mark Your Calendars: September 22nd.
Mark Your Calendars: September 22nd.
The release of an artist’s debut album is arguably one of the most defining moments of their career. While they may have a plethora of unofficial releases across platforms, up until their music hits major streaming platforms, the work gets only a limited number of ears directly affiliated with the artist or on an ‘if you know, you know’ basis. That’s where platforms like Soundcloud came in to serve as a launchpad for underground artists to prepare themselves and get accustomed to the convoluted world of mainstream access. Ahead of her debut album, ‘Enjoy Your Life’, Abuja-raised singer Lady Donli had kept the midnight oil burning as she carefully threaded a path to self-discovery from her 2014 mixtape, ‘Love & War’ to her immersive detailing of a heartbreak on 2017’s ‘Letters to her’.
When her 15-track LP finally arrived in 2019, it was more momentous for listeners who had been following the artist’s evolution over her first couple of releases. Newer listeners were not excluded, considering how distinct and rounded ‘Enjoy Your Life’ is within the Lady Donli canon. It’s just that, in flipping the script once again, older fans were fully prepared and Donli was ready, now more than ever, to bask in the limelight of her unrelenting efforts.
Set the scene in 2016. Nigeria’s prominent alternative community is witnessing a shift and tracking a path down mainstream audiences with the help of young mavericks like Cruel Santino, Odunsi (The Engine) and of course, Lady Donli, to name a few. While the first coming of the alternative movement goes as far back as 2009, spearheaded by the likes of DRB Lasgidi, Ajebutter and Blackmagic, the subculture’s second coming—now termed ‘alté’—didn’t come into fruition until around 2016. The reason it was able to garner so much attention in such remarkable ways is largely due to the sheer hunger and drive its major proponents had.
While mainstream Nigerian pop was expanding in unfathomable ways, trickling into international markets and strengthening its grip on Afropop’s centre, the new wave alté pioneers began experimenting with new ways to produce and consume music. As they built immersive worlds within their craft, exploring various soundscapes and fusing genres, artists like Lady Donli nurtured a community of explorers alike to put them on to innovative paths Nigerian music can travel. So, by the time lead hustle single, “Cash,” arrived with delightful Highlife infusions by The Cavemen and twinkling keys from producer, GMK, alongside poverty rebuking hit, “Suffer Suffer,” we were unlocking a portal into what would be one of the best debut releases in Nigerian music, this side of Wizkid’s ‘Superstar’.
In the true spirit of community, Lady Donli tapped some of the most stunning vocalists and expert producers still navigating a come-up in Nigeria’s hyper-competitive music scene. And to my preferred judgement, most of them were women. Let’s start with “Corner.” Dynamic sister duo, Ivana and Jessica Nwokike—more popularly known as VanJess—provided a refreshing R&B perspective to a Highlife-fusion track featuring dulcet shakers and background vocals from The Cavemen. Together, they presented a witty and direct address to their love interest, calling them out on their player ways, “Corner corner eh, you just dey use me dey play corner corner eh.”
Similarly, Donli enlisted flower crown-Tems, before she was Grammy award winning-Tems for a vibey, heart-warming rendition on “Good Time” as the pair crooned about only being interested in the jovial aspects of life. She also delivered an unrivalled combination of Ghanaian superstar, Amaarae, and SOMADINA for a sultry rendition on “FLAVA” and Solis for her ethereal touches on “Confident/Feeling Cool.”
Lady Donli was able to provide an enabling environment for her eclectic collaborators to blossom, all the while delivering star quality verses that reminded you who’s album you were listening to. Think “Never Ending” where Donli’s hypnotic vocals pull at your heartstrings as she confesses her extreme dedication and unquenchable thirst for her love interest. Or “Trouble,” where she relays the cold-heartedness of the streets and sheer longing for full-on commitment. She puts her skilled penmanship on full display and wears her heart on her sleeve the entirety of the project with the assistance of her painfully distinct chords. By the time the outro, “Bite the Dust” rolls around, you are met with bitter-sweet emotions.
Yes, this was one the most seamlessly curated projects of our time and a resounding debut for Donli but this is also the last time you’d hear the sonic masterpiece, ‘Enjoy Your Life,’ for the first time. “I’m just getting started, securing my assets/God give me the access, So I never get to bite the dust,” she croons once the track’s dreamy keys roll around. The heart-warming message implies that this is only the beginning for Lady Donli, as she beckons on God to open more doors into the future. It comes with intense disappointment that this peerless contribution to Nigeria’s vast music fabric has been pulled from digital streaming platforms for over a month now—hopefully to return soon.
With her debut album now behind her, Donli is evidently delighted to take the world by storm but the world’s greatest nightmare, COVID-19, puts all her efforts to a halt. And as the iconic tv show, ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ quotes, “when the world needed him [in this case, her] most, he [she] vanished.” Fans of ‘Enjoy Your Life’ searched high and low amidst the socially distanced lockdown for Lady Donli who we later discover in our 2020 column, Life in Quarantine, was stuck in Toronto, Canada.
While artists like Amaarae soundtracked our lockdown experiences, Lady Donli grappled with the rest of the world to understand what was starting to look like a new normal. Understandably overwhelmed by the overstimulating and heartbreaking news cycle, Lady Donli took a well-deserved social media and music break—with the exception of loosie single, “Wonda Wonda”— only to return in the later parts of 2020 with a two-pack release dubbed, ‘Rockstar Parole.’ For many hard core EYL fans, the smooth Afropop-textured release signified the end of a dearly beloved era. To this, Donli explained, “I said these songs are the last two from the EYL era. This is officially the end of an era because album two is on the way.” Speaking on what we now know as ‘Pan African Rockstar,’ Donli added, “I keep trying to explain, you can not box me. I created the box. Everytime I create a new project, it’s a new sonic. I take on a new identity. Everything [is] deliberate.”
After ‘Rockstar Parole,’ Lady Donli went MIA again, only to return half way into 2021 with the groovy 6-track EP, ‘W I L D’—acronym for Where Is Lady Donli?—and all seemed right with the world again. “Searching” leads the quiet, not-so-quiet comeback with part-brooding, part-excited journey down self-discovery alone and in the confines of a romantic relationship. “I just wanna know who I am, I hope that you can try and understand,” she ruminatively sang on the hook. On the EP, she tapped usual suspects of GMK and Yinka Bernie for producer duties, alongside guest appearances from Ragz Originale, Shae Universe and Sugarbana.
In typical Lady Donli fashion, ‘W I L D’ is captivating. She offers an electric freestyle on “Dragon Fruit Freestyle” and her vulnerable side on the intro, “WILD” as she confesses her struggles of loss and confusion while navigating the pandemic. However, “M.K.K” remains the EP’s standout for a number of reasons. We are reaffirmed of Donli’s fun and free self as she seduces her love interest, subtly shaming yet understanding why they’re obsessed with her. She evidently derives pleasure from dangling the carrot as she lulls, “You can be my ex if you play too much, when I put it on, tempted to touch.” As much as an EP doesn’t feel sufficient after a long hiatus, Donli ensures her fans that she is back for good with intimate live performances across the country.
As the new year rolled around, Lady Donli proved to be a woman of her word, debuting an enthralling performance of “Thunderstorm in Surulere” for A COLORS SHOW. Her vibrant, jumpy energy effortlessly transcends the screen as Donli sashays and sings over production by UK-based artist and EYL-collaborator, Benjiflow. The pair provide a melting pot of R&B, Afro-Soul and subtle tinges of Folk. She languidly basks in the euphoria of a romantic interest and her longing to be next to them, “Rain is falling, in a way it has never felt before/It’s the thunder in my soul that’s pouring/‘Cause I think I found the one, I’m Soaring.” The performance, which has now raked in 240k views, Donli reaffirmed her penchant for feel-good tunes laced with hypnotic instrumentals and peerless storytelling.
She didn’t close out 2022 without a new single, “Hello Lady,” a refreshing entrance into Donli’s newly explored soundscape. The LMBSKN-produced single unearthed a cheery Donli over a breezy, bass-led instrumental with her same, unmissable sensual energy. She croons, “I know I’m on to something, so excited, so excited/My head is spinning out of my body,” on what we now know as the first promotional single for her sophomore album, coming 4 years after the glittering debut.
As we’re well aware, it takes more than drive and talent to make it in the music scene. With a viewer attention span of mere seconds, navigating the space amidst dozens of new entrants proves difficult and Donli is not shy to express this. We catch a laidback Donli across platforms such as Twitter and TikTok, shamelessly requesting audience engagement and hustling for your attention. Her witty videos and one liners beckon on whoever would lend an ear to stream her singles as “My Ability,” the second promotional single for ‘Pan African Rockstar’. She is evidently leaning in a new direction as she enters an ultra-confident mode for an infectious rendition strengthened by lustrous guitar riffs and groovy percussions by JMS.
Given her history, it goes without saying that Donli has earned our ears and we’re in good, reliable hands as we anticipate her next album. The 12-tracker promises to deliver equal parts party anthems, self-reflection in usual Donli fashion and glassy love songs ultimately strung together by her childlike exploration for new sounds. Lady Donli’s time now and she is primed for another showcase of artistic brilliance, as always.
— Lady Donli (@LadyDonli) September 7, 2023
[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]