2Baba, 9ice & the burden of expectation on new albums from older artists

There’s no timestamp on appreciating, rediscovering and finding new reverence for great songs and albums, however, for music to be truly considered timeless, it needs to have defined or had a huge impact on the time it was originally released. Think about it: from Fela’s “Water no get Enemy” to Trybesmen’s “Plenty Nonsense” to Wande Coal’s “Bumper to Bumper” to Asa’s ‘Asa’ and other countless classics, music that has the evergreen stamp always seem to arrive right on time, often serving as a cornerstone to the legacy of the artists.

In the canon of modern afropop’s greatest songs, it doesn’t get any more classic than “Street Credibility”, the 2008 collaboration between 9ice and 2Baba—then going under the moniker 2Face Idibia. In its heyday, “Street Credibility” was the true definition of an inescapable hit, a truly flawless record that spread like wildfire and has now gone to be one of the most revered songs in Nigerian music.

For the two artists involved and the producer, ID Cabasa, the classic song plays a significant role in their respective legacies. For 9ice, who already had a mildly successful debut album, ‘Certificate’, “Street Credibility” was the moment he transformed from one mega-hit wonder (“Gongo Aso”) to proper superstar. For 2Baba, it was one of the brighter showcases of his unmatched ability and peerless star power. If you scour through the whole of contemporary Nigerian pop music, you’ll be hard-pressed to pull out a duet better than “Street Credibility”, and you’d only need on one hand to count the number of collaborative songs with the same level of impact.

Twelve years later, 2Baba and 9ice are still very active as musicians, with both of them dropping solo albums in the first half of this year. In a terrain where we’re used to seeing many prominent artists flame out after hitting their zenith, both these artists are in the vanguard of artists who epitomise longevity, and while they aren’t as commercially commanding as they once were, dropping projects that a fair share of the public cares about is a remarkable feat in itself.

As applaudable as it is for artists to drop music deep into the veteran stage of their career, that alone doesn’t equate to a wholesome reception. While there’s a backlog of context from their previous work, a new album has to go through quality checks; the music has to play and the audience will react on its own merit, with knowledge of that context in mind. In the cases of 2Baba and 9ice, their latest solo LPs have been met with mixed reactions, and both as individual projects and in comparison to what is widely regarded as their best works yet, it’s not difficult to see why there’s a lukewarm attitude to these albums.

‘Warriors’, 2Baba’s seventh solo album which was released back in February, is a star-studded affair with moments of brilliance that don’t really coalesce into an entirely enjoyable experience. Let’s be clear: 2Baba hasn’t lost (and will never lose) the bits of magic that makes him a special, generational talent. As recently as the summer of 2018, he enjoyed a golden moment with the Peruzzi-assisted smash hit, “Amaka”, and it appears on the album in all its undiminished glory. The biggest issue with ‘Warriors’, then, is that it doesn’t consistently hit the high bar 2Baba has set for himself.

As listeners, we’re often tethered to our expectations, but in the same breath, we have the capacity to adjust those same expectations when it’s an artist we revere, and no artist is more revered than 2Baba around these parts. With a handful of leisurely listens, rather taking to it as a statement project, ‘Warriors’ opens up and becomes more palatable, even if not entirely wholesome. In dropping the bar low, the songs first deemed as bland become serviceable deep cuts, while the better ones become strong standouts.

All of this begs the question of whether we should expect long-serving artists to continue delivering cutting edge albums. Ideally, the answer should be yes, mainly because artists always have a responsibility to put their best foot forward and new albums are an ideal medium for them to continue proving themselves. But in a young, developing industry which is still writing its rulebook on how to age and co-exist with younger and fresher talent, the needle isn’t fixed and that means approaching projects from older artists with a sense of careful optimism.

When 9ice’s new album, ‘Tip of the Iceberg: Episode 1’ came out late last month, I went in with tempered anticipation, expecting a good listen without looking for anything mind-blowing—that approach worked. ‘Tip of the Iceberg’ is far off from any of 9ice’s best work, but it offers a level of consistency that has been 9ice’s calling card for his past few projects. Pulling in high profile assists from Olamide, Reminisce and Wande Coal, it’s an album which built around his reliable nous for evocative writing in Yoruba.

Despite the flaws, ‘Tip of the Iceberg’ is a serviceable addition to 9ice’s catalogue, and that seems to be a consensus amongst those who have listened to the album. For an artist like 9ice whose recent work inspires ambivalence and sometimes causes controversy (see “Living Things”), the new album is a triumph of sorts, even though it’s quite the middling affair by proper standards.

It is a bit egregious to make excuses for mediocrity, but we also need to evaluate what we demand from longstanding artists who are no longer chasing hit songs, and could merely be making music as a form of their own artistic expression. Last October, Asa effectively ended her 5-year hiatus with her fourth studio album, ‘Lucid’, an exploration of love, heartbreak and resilience, which unfolds at an unhurried pace. Despite Asa’s relatable songwriting and the stellar cosmopolitan sound, there were murmurs about the album paling in comparison with her previous, ground-breaking work.

Complaints like this often stem from our need to re-capture a particular feeling from the artist, something that’s nearly impossible to do. The bitter truth is, artists only have so many chances to deliver magnum opus-worthy work, and whatever they do after they hit their creative peak will most likely be subject to changes in musical direction. We don’t have to accept all of it, but at least we can appreciate the efforts of artists who have been here for a while, and even meet the intentions of their albums halfway.

As the music scene grows wider and older, more longstanding artists will get better at consistently offering cutting edge music—as we’re already seeing with artists like Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, Olamide and more. Keeping in mind that they defined whole periods in Nigerian music, new albums (and songs) from older shouldn’t be roundly dismissed for not being up to par, as long as it doesn’t tarnish their legacy in any tangible ways.

[Featured Image Credits: YouTube/9iceofficial]

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