Revisiting the past winners of the Headies Next Rated Award

In one of the greatest scams in music history, German-French R&B duo Milli Vanilli won the Grammy award for Best New Artist in February 1990. Prior to that win, there were hushes that Rob and Fab, the acts in the group, hadn’t sung a note on their breakout album, ‘Girl You Know It’s True’, and those suspicions were confirmed later that year. While Milli Vanilli’s win was quickly rescinded, it became a big smudge on the reputation of the prestigious category.

The very next year, Mariah Carey won the award and quickly restored some validation to the category. Beyond the clear potential she possessed and her already successful eponymous debut LP, the category’s actual vindication, is that Mariah went on to build an immense and longstanding career as one of pop music’s best and greatest artists.

Gauged by fairly limited output and largely based on potential, Best New Artist awards are more or less a way for award bodies and industry insiders to place bets on artists they deem as budding superstars and game-changers. As illustrated by the two stories above, winners can turn out to be scams or the real deal—and in some cases, painfully mediocre.

In the Nigerian context, the Headies Next Rated award is the most coveted of such award categories in our growing music scene. Since debuting at the very first edition of the Hip-Hop World Awards (2006-2011) —before they rebrand to become the Headies— Next Rated has been dedicated to awarding the “most promising upcoming act in the year under review”, with a new car added to the winner’s incentive alongside the Headie plaque. While we, thankfully, haven’t seen any Milli Vanilli-level scams receive the award, it’s had its fair share of hits, controversies and misses.

With the new decade bringing a clarity that we’re knee-deep into a renaissance, it will be interesting to see how future winners of the (usually mainstream-focused) Next Rated category emerge, especially in a time when the music is becoming more diverse and as more new, independent artists are constantly springing up and proving themselves. At the same time, it also feels like a great time to recap all the previous winners and nominees from 2006 till date, taking a look at their trajectories and gauging the overall efficacy of the Next Rated category itself.

2006

Winner – Asa

(Nominees: N/A)

With two instantly striking, classic singles; “Eye Adaba” and “Fire on the Mountain”, Asa was the ideal generational talent that to kick-start the Next Rated award. Not only was her music unique, she also had the star quality needed for the long game. At the time, the singer was signed to the rising label, Question Mark Records, an arrangement which publicly and controversially fell apart later that year. Instead of disrupting her momentum, that unfortunate situation turned out to be a catalyst, as Asa signed to the French imprint, Naïve Records and released her unanimously classic debut LP in 2007. ‘Asa’ was a resounding success, confirming Asa’s entry into the rarefied territory as a game-changing superstar, a status she’s held on to ever since.

2007

Winner – Overdose

(Nominees: Naeto C, Lawal Olumo, Kage, C-Mion, Gino, Blaise)

2007 was the tipping point for the blistering renaissance Nigerian rap went on to enjoy from the late ‘00s to the early ‘10s, and many people thought the Kaduna-born rapper Overdose was going to be on the frontlines of the movement. The previous year, OD had scored a hit with “Don’t Hate”, a song which flexed his undeniable strengths as a lyricist and also showed his innate understanding of the Nigerian market he was appealing. In other words, he was the promise of a rapper who could be the best of both worlds, therefore, the appeal of him being Next Rated was glaring. Unfortunately, the hope sizzled out after a while – in 2009, OD signed with X3M, and dropped a few hits, “Drinks in a Glass” and “Alujo”, however, he never really fulfilled the potential many saw for him.

The same can be said for most of the other nominees— Blaise is a classic case of what could have been, Lawal Olumo barely made any dent, and while he put out the classic rap album, ‘Pain Plus Work’, Gino fizzled out quicker than expected. In hindsight, with what we know now, Naeto C would’ve been the best pick amongst the bunch. With his swag, endless quotables and unparalleled ability as a hitmaker, Naeto has gone on to become an urban legend, etching himself into the DNA of not just Nigerian rap music, but pop culture as a whole.

2008

Winner – Wande Coal

(Nominees: GT the Guitarman, M.I Abaga, Banky W, Cyrus da Virus)

Nobody in their right minds expected any other artist but Wande Coal to pick up the Headie and car at the 2008 edition of the hip-hop world awards. The competition was pretty formidable though; M.I and Banky went on to become two of Nigeria’s most revered, boundary-pushing artists – but at the time, Wande Coal had already proven himself as a superstar in the waiting. There were literally zero doubts about the havoc he was set to wreak.

In 2007, the legendary Mo’Hits crew (in)arguably delivered the greatest compilation project in modern afropop, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, and Wande was the undoubted star of the show. After his win, Wande effortlessly hunkered down and proved everyone right, inarguably delivering the greatest debut album in modern afropop, ‘Mushin 2 Mo’Hits’. His legend was signed and sealed; no matter how you feel about the inconsistencies since then, there’s no question that Wande Coal and his debut are a cornerstone in the ongoing global acceptance of African music.

2009

Winner – Omawumi

(Nominees: Kel, YQ, MP, Djinee)

In these parts, former contestants of music contest shows often struggle to gain much momentum in the moments following, either because they buckle under the weight of expectation or they can’t seem to translate their lessons into making music that resonates with a wide audience. Starting off with her South African folk-infused debut single, “In the Music”, Omawumi quickly began to establish herself as one of the very few anomalies, reiterating the huge singing talents she showed as the runner-up of the 2007 West African Idols. She also managed to make a statement as a newly minted artist with the potential for longevity.

Outlasting other nominees in the category —all of whom were talented and went on to have moments of their own— with an impressive catalogue that includes well-received albums and hit songs, Omawumi has acquitted her Next Rated win in convincing fashion. While she is sometimes omitted in the conversation of perennially reliable artists, Omawumi has thrived in a space that hasn’t always been kind towards women, and her continuous stream of new music is proof that she has more to offer and isn’t planning to fizzle out anytime soon.

2010

Winner – Skuki

(Nominees: General Pype, Mo’Cheddah, Jesse Jagz, D’Prince)

Of the annual group of Next Rated nominees, this particular can make you a bit ambivalent in retrospect. In a baffling turn of events, these artists seemed to peak around the period of their nominations—with D’Prince being the only commercial exception, and Jesse Jagz hit new creative heights while drifting further away from the mainstream. Delivering hits like “Banger” and “Stamina”, eventual winners Skuki were in the middle of a dominating run, but there were no signs that they were here for the long run. The fact that it took only less than two years for their fuel to run out is very telling.

2011

Winner – Wizkid

(Nominees: Ice Prince, Olamide, Tiwa Savage)

In contrast to the preceding year, this set of artists was packed with artist who definitely went on to impact afropop significantly. Ice Prince took the definition of what it means to be a commercially successful rapper in Nigeria to another level; Olamide is arguably the greatest and most prolific rapper Nigeria has ever seen; and Tiwa Savage is amongst the artists that have continued to raise the bar for excellence in Nigeria pop music. However, much like Wande Coal’s set in 2008, there was no competition where Wizkid was concerned.

After showcasing his potential with his stunning appearance on M.I’s “Fast Money Fast Cars”, Wizkid established himself as afropop’s hottest prospect since Wande Coal with two scene-stealing features on Banky W’s sophomore album, ‘The W Experience’, and solo smash singles, Holla at your Boy”, “Tease Me” and “Don’t Dull”. Wiz’s Next Rated win was more of a pre-emptive coronation rather than a superstar prediction, with his classic, smash debut LP, ‘Superstar’ only proving this further.

2012

Winner – Davido

(Nominees: Eva Alordiah, Praiz, Chuddy K)

For the second time in a row, the Headies were given a surefire winner even though the competition wasn’t as tightly packed as the preceding year. I remember jokes about how Davido was about to add another car to his fleet while Eva Alordiah was going to continue moving around in cabs and on bikes – the rapper playfully admitted to her means of mobility in the campaign for the award. Regardless, Davido was utterly deserving of his win.

After pulling a 180 from the grass to grace story of his breakout single, “Back When”, Davido owned his privilege with “Dami Duro”, a smash banger of epic proportions. Similar to Wizkid, Davido’s Next Rated win was merely an acknowledgement of his world-beating talent and tenacity, all of which has manifested in a phenomenal career brimming with hit singles and sold-out shows across the world. He’s had one or two bumps along the way, but there’s never been a time when his greatness was in doubt.

2013

Winner – Sean Tizzle

(Nominees: Burna Boy, Dammy Krane, Seyi Shay, Phyno)

Perhaps the tightest set in terms of competition, each of the nominees for the 2013 Next Rated award had a legitimate shot at winning, it didn’t really come as a surprise when Sean Tizzle picked up the plaque and the car. At the time, Sean Tizzle had a huge hit in “Sho Lee” and subsequent singles touted him as a special talent, which he proved to some extent with his well-received debut album, ‘The Journey’. However, his win was a snub for Burna Boy, who would’ve been the ideal candidate with the gift of hindsight.

Similarly to Kanye after he lost at the Best New Artist award at the 2004 American Music Awards, Burna Boy exited the venue shortly after Tizzle’s win was announced, clearly slighted by the snub. Justifying his slight, even after already dropping a great debut album, ‘L.I.F.E’, Burna has gone on to hit undeniable levels of success, and flipped a rough patch after his sophomore album into one of the most dominant runs contemporary afropop has seen.

2014

Winner – Patoranking

(Nominees: Runtown, Yemi Alade, Skales, Orezi)

With his distinct reggae/dancehall-influenced sound, and the hit songs “Alubarika” and the Tiwa Savage-assisted “Girlie O (Remix)”, Patoranking was in pole position to poach the Next Rated award ahead of a talented set of competitors. While all the nominated artists are still active to varying but notable degrees of success, Patoranking’s consistency in quality and continued evolution as a bona fide part of afropop’s global push have helped in proving his potential.

2015

Winner – Reekado Banks

(Nominees: Lil Kesh, Kiss Daniel, Korede Bello, Cynthia Morgan)

Arguably the most infamous moment in the history of the award show, Reekado Banks winning Next Rated over Lil Kesh sparked an embittered exchange between both artists’ label bosses, Don Jazzy and Olamide. Going into the ceremony, most people fancied Lil Kesh as the runaway winner of the category, since – to paraphrase Olamide– every single was a hit, back to back to back. It wasn’t that Reekado wasn’t a strong contender, it’s that Lil Kesh’s numerous hits helped him reign over the year in review.

But for an award that also places a premium on potential, the Headies seem to have been vindicated in retrospect. While Reekado is still a pretty reliable hit maker, Kesh today is not as notable on the scene as he once was. From an objective standpoint, however, Kiss (now Kizz) Daniel would have been the best pick, as not only did he release a widely acclaimed debut—something that eluded his other contenders—Kizz has remained at the cutting edge of afropop ever since, sidestepping the dreaded sophomore slump. Even though he’s quite problematic, he has kept the hits flowing.

2016

Winner – Mr Eazi

(Nominees: Tekno, Ycee, Humblesmith, Aramide)

There’s a possibility that Mr Eazi would have had stronger competition for his Next Rated run, had Tekno not (somewhat wrongly) rescinded his nomination. The remaining trio of contenders—Ycee, Humblesmith and Aramide—had had breakout years as well and have continued to press on with their respective careers, but there’s no denying that Mr Eazi was a dominant force in a fairytale year that saw him greatly impact all of afropop.

Beyond that run, the satisfying part of his Next Rated win is the astronomical heights Eazi has reached since then. The singer has released two solid projects, toured around the world by himself and as a supporting act for Urbano mainstay, J Balvin, and he’s performed at Coachella. In addition, he’s also bolstering his CV as a visionary for the growth of African music, through the incubator/label services arm he initiated, emPawa Africa. He might not yet inspire the highest level of reverence as his slightly more notable senior colleagues, but Mr Eazi is a prime example of the seal of approval an award like Next Rated hopes to inspire.

2018

Winner – Mayorkun

(Nominees: Maleek Berry, Johnny Drille, Dice Ailes, Zoro)

Similar to his label boss in 2012, there was really no getting in Mayorkun’s way when he confidently and comfortably won the Next Rated award in 2018. Although he was in the midst of talented and promising prospects, Mayorkun had already made it to stardom with a string of big singles and it didn’t seem like he was going to stop. He eclipsed any doubts with his successful debut album, The Mayor of Lagos’, and he’s only vaulted further into superstar territory with multiple headlining concerts—including his sold-out, Indigo O2 arena show—and hit singles, like this year’s biggest song till date, “Geng”.

2019

Winner – Rema

(Nominees: Fireboy DML, Joeboy, Zlatan, Lyta, Victor AD)

Sometimes, you just know you’re witnessing a special artist right from the moment they appear. Immediately Rema dropped his debut eponymous EP, it was undeniable that he is as special as they come. The diversity and stunning quality of his two subsequent EPs, ‘Freestyle EP’ and ‘Bad Commando’, only cemented that idea and it was more than enough for the Benin-born artist to race his way to the Next Rated award of the last Headies.

To be fair, the nominee list was packed with worthy contenders who had proven themselves and have continued to build towards distinguished careers. Fireboy’s “Jealous” and “King” were two of the biggest and best songs of last year, and his impressive, hugely successful debut album, ‘Laughter, Tears & Goosebumps’ only projects greater things for the YBNL singer. Joeboy’s “Baby” placed the singer in the canon of potential long term hitmakers, a reputation he’s steadily fulfilling with subsequent singles and features.

Less than a year later, and as we’re currently living our lives against the backdrop of a pandemic and a bunch of other shitty events, it will take more time to justify Rema’s win. However, as this hinges on Rema full transformation from special to transcendental—he’s clearly well on his way—that bet already looks like it’s done and delivered.

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