5 Years Later, Odunsi (The Engine) & Nonso Amadi’s ‘War’ Remains A Cult Classic
a most outstanding joint tape
a most outstanding joint tape
In 2017, no one saw the collaboration between Odunsi (The Engine) and Nonso Amadi coming. While both artists operated within similar ranges of R&B and Afropop, merging them to their will with each new release, there weren’t many nearby precedents for their collaborative ambitions. Even fewer could imagine their sonic connection, let alone envisage the creation of a four-track project. Yet it is this sense of quiet achievement that has characterised the legacy of ‘War’, five years after its release.
These days it is relatively common for the success of Afropop to be measured in months, with new highs being recorded each day. Still, a number of subtle shifts triggered this state into being. In 2017, there were strong signs of a new wave. Early into the year Mr Eazi completed his 2016 run towards home with ‘Accra To Lagos’, distilling his Highlife roots into atmospheric slow burners carried on the earthy bass of his vocals. Wizkid’s ‘Sounds From The Other Side’ and Simi’s ‘Simisola’ were released two months apart from each other in the year’s second half, which both essentially highlighted that a new path had opened for Nigerian Pop, and there was only one way to test its efficiency: by playing its fields.
Over on Soundcloud, the country’s alternative acts were early runners of the mid-tempo game. With their hold on the internet, they cultivated the dominant trait of independence among these creators. Often considered in terms of charting a course to the future, artists from that era also experimented through tinkering with the wisdom of past inventions and borrowing from a range of sonic influences. Between the duo who made ‘War’, Odunsi was more forthcoming about the influence of older forms like Fuji on his music, but Nonso Amadi’s records were often tinged with breezy elements which hinted at tropical Island influences.
All these were present on the EP, contributing to its presence among a number of year-end lists. I was having a boring day sometime last year when I revisited some old projects that weren’t paid particular attention to upon release. That I picked ‘War’ first was only natural: I’d become a fan of Nonso Amadi shortly after my elder brother put me on to “Long Live The Queen” and I remember being surprised upon discovering he was also the voice behind “Tonight”. Odunsi grew on me a short while later, even though “Desire” with Tay Iwar and Funbi soundtracked many melancholic nights of my life. Eventually his artistry was placed into perspective with ‘Rare’, which offered my earliest immersion into the stunning breadth of the alternative soundscape, spawning semi-hits such as “Divine” and “Star Signs” which, featuring Davido and Runtown respectively, demonstrated the subtle ways the counterculture was influencing mainstream acts.
The ‘War’ tape starts off with hints of its intended mood. A certain Jeff, riding through Hamilton in Canada talks about coming across this “smooth collection of nostalgic sentiments”—a description that still holds up after subsequent listens. What’s more nostalgic than love, the oldest theme of them all? Imprinting new spins on such a well-trodden subject isn’t easy, but that hasn’t stopped musicians from trying.
I wasn’t too steeped in the details of love when the project was released, but years after coursing through seas of desire and affectation, a song like “Ocean” opens up more beautifully now. It captures all the wistfulness of being lonely and wanting someone beside you for the ride. “Henny plus me is a bad combination,” Nonso Amadi sings on the opening verse, sketching the picture of a beleaguered man who sits at the barstool and ponders if love would ever find him. It’s the type of broodiness he’s known for, but Odunsi on hook duties introduces a warm groove which balances the tape all through. “I’m the type to love you till you suffocate”, he sings on his verse, then going on to ask “how deep is your love?”
Set to twinkling keys and steady drums, it’s the only song on the tape that’s not produced by either Nonso or Odunsi (The Engine). The mood carries into other records, moving between distinct meters of sound but wielded together by the musicians’ obvious chemistry. “Don’t” is the most upbeat song on the album, a fine contrast with the plea at its base. “Don’t make me love you, I don’t have to love you” they sing with the charm of one who’s already fallen but–like many of us–coming short of the language to address such a tender conflict. Perhaps the most warlike quality about love is how opposites of the human condition–love and hate, satisfaction and hunger–are pulled into its peculiarities.
In the years since ‘War’ was released, relationships have risen to the top of most discussed social subjects, with disparate opinions on both sides of the gender divide. Men are often berated for their emotional unavailability, how wary we sometimes are to embrace the enthralling experience of being with someone and being for them. “Stay” ramps up the conflict, with Nonso Amadi getting direct to its base. “What you mean I gotta hangout more; every time me and my niggas outdoors/ Everybody queue to take a photo; I ain’t really feeling like a model” he sings over the looping action film-esque keys. Odunsi is less pensive but maintains nuance, singing, “Said she wanna know what it is, why I keep it moving like a solo/ I don’t need drugs to feel a way, you know that my love sophisticated/ I just need time, I need some patience”.
As finely as any craftsmen working towards one goal, Odunsi (The Engine) and Nonso Amadi combine their peculiarities for an immersive experience. Whereas Nonso prizes introspection, Odunsi is more experiential, turning each story outside-in. Their distinct vocals–Nonso’s bright tone against Odunsi’s warm lulls—also brings the listener a balanced perspective of love through the peeking eyes of masculinity. Closing with “War”, the relationship has come to an eventual end. Here’s the most emotionally-heated stage, being so close to redemption and losing it. The song begins with beat scratches before segueing into a tempo that accentuates the song’s message. “Maybe you can text me later, but let’s not go to war” goes the hook, helmed on both sides by more detailed verses accounting for the fall-off.
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There’s always the concern that joint tapes would fall short of expectations, but ‘War’ underscores the weighty gains of attempting one. It’s not a celebrated practice in Nigeria but there’s beauty in seeing two young artists create such a compact body of work so early in their career.
Conceiving such from any duo today would be a hard task, and for less obvious reasons than you’d think. Fan comparisons are only one part of the equation; there’s a quality that comes only from being locked in and tuning to each other’s frequencies. Since 2017, I probably could count the number of notable joint tapes in one hand, but things could be simpler. Even when faced with the everlasting turmoil of love becoming war, Odunsi and Nonso Amadi demonstrate the usefulness in keeping things simple.
Stream ‘War’ below.
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