Asake, Wizkid & the influencing power of listeners on artists’ creativity

Audience expectations are almost as popular as the music.

Last Friday, Asake released ‘Work of Art’, his second studio album in nine months. It came with much discussion about the sounds Asake would pick up, especially in light of some criticism he’d faced the year before. According to listeners who shared their thoughts on social media, the YBNL artist’s zealous utilisation of the amapiano-meets-fuji blend was becoming less novel and more hectic, which kind of suggested he was maybe a one-trick pony. 

Every new song was parsed through critical ears. For instance, the progressions on “Sungba” and “Palazzo” were considered to be a rehashing, and prior opinions hinted that he and the Magicsticks alliance was suffering a bit of complacence. Perhaps it was expected: boasting a melodic grasp on the poignant lyricism of fuji, listeners wanted to hear those inflections on a different sound. As though in direct contradiction of their expectations, Asake made ‘Mr Money With The Vibe’ one of the most closely-curated Nigerian pop albums in recent times, each song wielding those same qualities that had gotten him the banter name ‘Sungbaman’ some months earlier. 

A new album is here and the fires of conversation are again stoked. Earlier this week, a tweet featuring a video comparing the opening seconds of different Asake songs across his two albums went viral, suggesting the Lagos-born artist was being formulaic. 

As you’d expect, the comments were varied but most were similarly enraptured by the excitement of new things. It seemed as though Asake’s secret had been revealed to the world. Well, there’s a deeper discourse at play, and it surely extends past Asake. For as long as there’s been entertainers, there have been audiences. It’s a relationship with a subtle but powerful relevance, as it has the potential to shape both parties. For audiences, the associative tendencies produced by their favourite creators stands the possibility of influencing them. 

Beyond shaping their artistic sensibilities, there’s often a real life effect that comes from the art we consume. There’s no surprise when listeners of Nas turn out to be society-grounded intellectuals. He frames his music from the perspective of an insider, utilising high art no less to bring the situations alive. On the other hand, a rapper like Jay-Z embodies the totality of celebrity. He’s a fantastic stylist, but his career is what it is in spite of that and not because of that. This artist-audience dynamic is important because very often, it’s the perspective of the audience that’s heard. Through social media, open letters, at concerts and festivals, in magazine pieces like this, the audience somehow asserts his presence. 

For artists, the question becomes: beyond their presence, just how influential the audience should be. Is it worthy to create from purely individual impulses or rather the work attune itself to contemporary interests? These are nuanced considerations and attempting to unfurl them may reveal something relevant to the present conversation. 

In the sphere of Nigerian, audience expectations are almost as popular as the music. Especially in the hyper-connected age of social media, opinions have the ability to make or break a release. The awareness of their power has made the audience cover new ground in the historical landscape of their relationship with creators. Quite frankly, the philosophy of the music business is that musicians should go where the market is. That is, creating music to suit the sensibilities of the people you’re supposedly creating for. 

However, it would be overstating the audience’s wisdom to say some musicians haven’t successfully created outside of those expectations. Artists have sometimes struck out on their own to establish what the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel described as the absolute arbitrariness of an artist who transcends all influences to create from his own subjectivity. In ‘Sounds From The Other Side’, the artistic vision of Wizkid was revealed as forward-facing, especially after the album’s standing was solidified as time went by.

The project’s mellow soundscape was a sharp turn after from the pomp of his earlier releases. Crystallised by ‘Superstar’, the artist’s grasp of the triumphant pop banger was unrivalled, and by creating ‘STFOS’ had betrayed the audience’s image of him. In relation to the Asake situation, first of all, this demonstrates that fan expectation isn’t always consistent. At best, fans will depend on their emotions to inform their takes. There’s actually little research that suggests that they’re speaking from an artistically informed perspective. 

‘Made in Lagos’ solidified the efforts of Wizkid from ‘STFOS’, blending the juicier elements of Caribbean pop with the conversational ebbs of African cultures. Thus with a more controlled creative room, Wizkid successfully set up the sonic bridge he’d begun building with his Drake-hosted “One Dance”. In hindsight, were Wizkid to have succumbed to fan pressure, it is likely he would not have gotten the experience he needed to create ‘MIL’.

Likewise, the evolution of Adekunle Gold was initially open to criticism. His folk-minted records such as “Sade” and “Ready” had tugged the sensitive plains of audiences’ hearts, making him the favourite everyman. Gold’s vision was however focused on a broader direction, and he began to chart that lane gradually, starting with the glossy intimacy of ‘About 30’. For a musician who had the streets, with an audience base which included varied demographics, most people considered it an abrupt move. If there are any other dissenting views, the elite cache of pop-centric hits Adekunle Gold has scored in the past four years puts them to bed. 

Being an artist is such a dangerous thing to do. I say this as someone who hopes to one day write books and create stuff. Out there in the world, nobody really cares for the mental fortitude it takes to create what you create. The work is all that is visible; everything else melts away. 

For this particular reason, creating art has to be an experience true to oneself. The mass commercialisation of Nigerian Pop (or Afrobeats, if you will) makes this seem like an altruistic vision but it is perhaps the only vision for a serious creative. During his peak years, the artist Iyanya was the rave of the industry. He followed the conventional wisdom; he was everywhere people needed him to be, but he was seldom there for his artistry. When others came with better alternatives to what he was satisfied with providing, he was largely forgotten, castaway on the trail of old Nigerian Pop loves. 

In contrast, the legendary P-Square stuck to their guns during their era of dominance. People often criticised them for taking too much from classic American R&B, but the twins knew how to work those sensibilities into a uniquely Nigerian flavour. They believed in their style rather than churning out similar music to what everyone else was making. As a result, they have one of the most identifiable catalogues in modern Nigerian music, positioned at the forefront when an audience wants to get into a particular vibe.  

Let’s come back to Asake. There’s an opinion I saw somewhere; that ‘MMWTV’ and ‘Work of Art’ can be considered as siblings rather than twins. I agree. The amapiano log drums from which Magicsticks usually shapes his compositions isn’t known to be the most malleable instrument, in that it’s a very distinct sound. Regardless of how it’s being utilised, this means it comes off as repetitive to the everyday listener. 

Producers would however tell you that few songs on this sophomore album have a direct copy from last year’s breakout one. Rather, they extend the vision, adapting breezy progressions to carry the superstar persona Asake is all about. Where the production was previously heavy to carry the grass-to-grace narrative, here it’s essentially stripped, contributing to a generally celebratory tone. We need to understand that novelty can still be created within an existing template, to borrow the words of that Twitter user. 

South African ‘Piano savants likes Kabza De Small and De Mthuda have demonstrated this across several albums in their oeuvre. Making subtle, intricate flourishes from beat to beat, there’s a continuity in the sound that makes the listener locked wholesomely in that world. Alternatively, some other listeners are bound to get bored, but it’s the nature of art to resist unanimous acclaim. Subjectivity, that often mentioned word, is so profoundly present in music, that the surest bet is to trust the musician. 

In an interview with OkayAfrica, the rapper LADIPOE spoke about the initial pushback he got when he was making incursions into the pop-rap sphere. “You don’t have to focus on the evolution because the artist will evolve faster than the audience, it’s nature” he said, a poignant reminder that these people are the ones in those studios, traveling around the world, and soaking in sounds and cultures as they do. It’s expected that sometimes their creations wouldn’t resonate in early listens, especially when it’s so different (or in Asake’s case, similar) to their previous work. 

This doesn’t mean that a work of art can’t be critiqued. Rather, it’s a reminder that audiences shouldn’t hold artists to their own standards. At its essential, basic level, the artist creates to satisfy an itch within themselves, and with an audience or not, the work still remains art. Acclaim might come decades later, or not at all, and critics like myself might constructively unravel a project, but it’s to the detriment of art to tell the artist what to create. Personally, what I do is highlight the shortcomings in the execution of the work; I do not pretend to know the intent behind its ideation. 

Fortunately, the man at the centre of this has given us an insight into his process. In his sprawling NATIVE Issue 005 cover profile, he referred to his style as a special rice he’d discovered. If everyone was looking for that potent mix of cultural impact and commercial success, and his dive into Amapiano had provided that, it makes little sense to divorce the sonic marriage. “My sound is my sound,” he said. “That makes it my sound, because you can’t understand it. The moment I understand it, that means it’s not my sound, so I have to keep dipping into my sound”. That’s good perspective to have, especially when he’s this fresh into his mainstream career. I believe the Asake on “Yoga” who floated over the bluesy rhythms of Sakara—via sampling a Sega music classic—would still resurface; he only needs the time to learn its intricacies as well as he’s done Amapiano. Without that grounding, he might flounder in the process of experimentation. 

Art isn’t a walk in the park. Popular music has a tighter runtime than other disciplines like painting or writing, but we can sometimes borrow from their practices. Artists are known for different styles throughout their career, and each style isn’t necessarily moved into after one successful outing with it. The works of transcendental painters like Picasso and Caravaggio were critiqued according to their distinct eras, from early paintings to mid-age paintings and, finally, their later works. And even when these works are different in medium or execution, there’s often a unified thread running through them. We can and should give musicians this grace; they’re artists too.