Nonso Amadi’s Renewed Vision Comes Full Circle On ‘When It Blooms’
The Nigerian artist balances his generational qualities with humane perspective
The Nigerian artist balances his generational qualities with humane perspective
Talent can be a conflicting thing. The ability for greatness might sometimes be visible, but it takes more than awesome skill to actualise it. It is often the curse of the talented to suffer a heavy existence, something the writer Akwaeke Emezi once described as a levelling of one’s otherwise brilliance. This creates sensitivity of emotion which requires patient but purposeful harnessing.
In the past two years, Nonso Amadi has been honing his powers. This coming Friday, the Nigerian musician will release his debut album, ‘When It Blooms’. Arriving on a cloud of successive singles, collaborations with Nigerian musicians, and audible changes in sonic direction, there’s a sort of quiet expectation trailing the imminent release. Amadi is already deep in his rollout: on social media handles, he has shared the official tracklist, some personal stories about the making of the album and the origin of superstar dreams. An expectable course, by all means. Where Nonso Amadi truly excels is in the music.
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The internet has placed a new emphasis on collective memories. A fast-changing world means we aren’t able to foster close-knit communities as we once did, and where the local CD shop used to be the rendezvous for heated arguments based strictly on love, now it’s social media: Facebook, Twitter, TikTok. As such, there’s a growing cache of songs and memories conferred with high recognition. It’s therefore quite logical to consider “Tonight” as that kind of song. Beyond its sonic brilliance, it was a record which encapsulated the mood of its era. Many of us were young but almost old, pushing bravely into adulthood and its attendant pursuits and disasters.
Nonso Amadi’s music and his actual person wasn’t immediately aligned. It wasn’t obvious to many that a Nigerian artist would be conceptually brilliant, using imagery and personification in their songwriting. Anyways, the doubts were summarily dispelled with “Long Live The Queen”, a record which honed more into his indie songwriter perspective. It was the kind of song Passenger would make if he grew up in Canada. Offering striking guitars and a weary sense of the world, Nonso Amadi had coveted a very specific fold within the Nigerian soundscape.
In previous eras, several Nigerian artists have attempted to fold literary devices into their music. The likes of GT The Guitarman, Ese Peters and Bemyoda shared that flourish for the pure, evoking nature and longing with the exactness of a post-Dylan prodigy. For diverse reasons their impact was however limited to the margins of mainstream knowledge, that murky field often described as alternative music. With the times comes exposure, and when Nonso Amadi arrived on the scene he was knowledgeable enough to defy such expectations. Songs like “Emergency” and “Radio” had flourishes recognisable on the mainstream.
Music can however sustain the body for so long. It’s useless to guess what might have been happening in Nonso Amadi’s life, but for a character like him, sudden change isn’t the most ideal situation. The period before the pandemic coincided with his drifting away from popular attention, almost at the same time a new vanguard of artists were making their entry on the scene. Among those artists were Fireboy DML and Omah Lay, whose lyrical approaches were immediately reminiscent—at least, to me—of Nonso Amadi.
However, both musicians were better luminaries of the Nigerian experience. Fireboy drew readily from the template of Wande Coal, folding Yoruba sensibilities within flamboyant overtones in pop music. That awareness was everywhere on his acclaimed debut, featuring the kind of songwriting Nonso Amadi was more or less the progenitor of. In the case of Omah Lay, his Port Harcourt origin gave profound local inflections to his vignette-heavy writing, making him the industry’s favourite anti-hero whose melancholy was demonstrating of a much-larger trend permeating contemporary Nigeria.
Consequently, the withdrawal of Nonso Amadi from the scene wasn’t as missed, not as it would have been three years before. Perhaps around this time, Amadi got to thinking about the Nigerian credibility in his work. 2019’s ‘Free’ had signature airy synths and sombre notes in its sonic register, but the EP was subtly positioned as an entry into pop, with the collaborations with Simi and Mr. Eazi promoted as lead singles. Nevertheless, songs like “No Crime” and “What Makes You Sure?” were some of the most acclaimed of the bunch, showing that he needn’t covet Nigerian experiences as much as stay true to his heart.
“The best way to capture your listeners is through the ups and downs,” said Nonso Amadi during an episode of The NATIVE’s Bruk It Down. Being a storyteller, he would know. Indeed the music of Nonso Amadi creates a safe bubble around his listeners, a place where their most outrageous desires and solemn fears can be discussed with an almost doctoral clarity, salving the wounds of realism with sufficient empathy.
“Radio” describes that communal feeling. A breezy record produced by Juls, it follows the quintessential narrative of a superstar whose town and homeboys are letting him go into the world. “We out here rooting for ya, stay on the radio,” he sings with appreciative warmth, beaming his authorial light on where he’s come from. A similar intimacy permeates “Aika”, continuing the artist’s favoured metaphors which uses technological devices as a metre for observing distance and subsequent longing. Such records demonstrate the sensitive allure of Nonso Amadi which also enters into his sound engineering and production.
During those years where he wasn’t actively putting out music, Nonso Amadi produced for other artists such as King Promise (“Slow Down”) and Mr. Eazi (“Legalize”). Reminiscent of his work on the Odunsi co-hosted cult classic ‘War’, the artist proved himself an invaluable asset as a collaborator. And with the understated mastery of an auteur, all his productions exquisitely find the middle ground between his personal tastes and the requirements of the artists. Even with his reclusive nature, that skill hasn’t gone underexplored, especially when he’s producing his own music.
Nonso Amadi’s return has staked his claim to mainstream ubiquity. In stronger grasp of Black realities across Nigerian and in the diaspora, he’s now more attuned to the sounds that make up its social fabric and how purposefully to blend them into his favoured R&B style. “Foreigner” had percussion with debts to Caribbean ska, slowed with sensual strings which rendered a Juls-esque vibe to its appeal. “Ease Up” was steered on a pace which previous Nonso Amadi songs seldom went on; its Pidgin English-inflected verses were also revealing of his evolving ease with Nigerianisms. On “Lock Up”, the street sage Zinoleesky rubbed shoulders with Nonso Amadi, both writers flexing their distinct but similarly evocative writing styles.
‘When It Blooms’ is set to crown the expansive first arc of Nonso Amadi’s career. Unlike the corporate certainty that has followed some of his contemporaries, Amadi lives the life of a true creative. They are seldom certain of what they want to do, but are strongly moved by what they don’t want to do. For an artist with the unwavering standard and rich catalogue of Nonso Amadi, it is enviable that he would seek to push deeper into the textures of his artistry.
Already, the songs that have been released create good precedent. There’s no doubt this would sound different to anything the 27-year-old has ever created, but listeners would be hoping he doesn’t change too drastically. Music, after all, is a game of images and perception, and right now, the perception of Nonso Amadi remains of a thoughtful poet whose ink is supplied in blood and tears, the fleeting happiness and wanton suffering that is known as the human condition.
Having listened to a great part of the album, I can boldly say that Nonso Amadi has created a lasting work. Listeners might not rush to immediately declare its greatness, but it’s the kind to demand subsequent listens. Consequently, its intricate, inner energy arises, lighting up moments with trademark vivacity. For the most parts of the album, Nonso Amadi directs the proceedings but the features also deliver purposefully, further deepening the album’s rouge tone.
One thing’s for sure: this journey has arrived at a fitting destination. Talent can sometimes be a force too heavy to bear, but to his credit, Nonso Amadi has balanced his generational qualities with a refreshing humane perspective. Now returning to ascend his rightful place among the finest troubadours of Afropop, it’s an extension of one of the tenderest love letters ever written between artist and listener.