Our First Impressions of Ayra Starr’s ‘The Year I Turned 21’

her sophomore release

To say Ayra Starr is having a moment would be an understatement because said moment has lasted over three years now. It feels like just yesterday when the 19-year-old burst onto the scene with a childlike wonder that has now metamorphosed into the self-assured candour of a bonafide superstar. The career growth between her self-titled debut and her critically-acclaimed album, ‘19 & Dangerous’ was inarguably an inimitable moment in Afropop history. But the success of one or two hits didn’t stop Ayra’s dedication to shaping her craft and taking control of the narrative of young African women. She took on the mantle with grace, extending her winning streak to cement herself as one of the most reliable hitmakers from this side. 

Now, ‘The Year I Turned 21’ arrives with pomp and glamour, chronicling the Popstar’s rise to global stardom. The 14-tracker is stacked with humble brags like “Commas” and groovy, yet melancholic storytelling on “Lagos Love Story” or Giveon-assisted “Last Heartbreak Song.” Once a fresh face breaking glass ceilings and inverting the industry’s gender stereotypes with her confident aura, Ayra is now deservedly a main contributor to Afropop’s rich tapestry and she won’t be shying away from the limelight anytime soon. For her highly anticipated sophomore album, the NATIVE team shares our expectations leading up to release, our favourite songs and even the biggest skips. Tap in! 


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What were your expectations of Ayra Starr going into this album? 

Tayo:  Ayra is an incredible artist who is very intentional about her craft so I expected amazing vocals and a few bops that would carry us through summer. Judging by the singles she released off the project over the last few months like “Commas” and the snippets we heard off “Goodbye (Warm Up),” I knew this was going to be a project that got people’s attention and one where she would be experimenting with her sound.

Jim: Over the years, Ayra has shown incredible growth and made it clear that she is ready for the big moments, and the big stages. Off the back of her singles, debut EP and debut album,  I expected heavy  R&B themes throughout the album with the occasional Afrobeats song, and Ayra did not disappoint, presenting a sumptuous blend of both worlds. My biggest expectation, however, was extreme confidence in her lyricism, delivery, and melodies, and Ayra delivered without question. On this album, she forcefully and undoubtedly shines through with reckless abandon.

What songs stood out on the first listen? 

Nwanneamaka: It has to be “Lagos Love Story” because Ayra’s mic was ON. Considering I typically lean into the more upbeat numbers for the first listen, I loved this song simply for how crystal her vocals came through. She hit all those notes with so much ease and flair with the groovy production taking the back seat to let her vocals really shine through. Delivery aside, it’s nice to hear a love song chronicling the Lagos experience in a non-toxic way. It’s sweet, innocent even. 

Wale: This feels like an obvious pick but “Goodbye (Warm Up)” felt like a hit once that snippet of Ayra previewing it landed on the internet. It still has that X Factor on first listen and I think it works for me because it feels like an extension of Ayra’s personality. She’s genuinely having fun on this song and it suits the theme of ‘TYIT21’ perfectly and, then, there’s the Asake factor as well. I also liked the GIVEON collab, “Last Heartbreak Song,” because it ties into the narrative of the album of Ayra maturing as a performer and person. 

How well did the guest appearances enhance your first listen? 

Jim: All the guest appearances enhanced the experience of the album within their own pockets. What particularly shines through with the features, though, is Ayra’s ability to let each guest artist revel in their own world, and seamlessly fuse their distinct deliveries with her effervescent melodies, offering fans meticulously refined compositions of their unique artistries.

Daniel B.:  I loved all the features. Every artist brought their own signature style but they all merged so well with Ayra’s sound. Nothing short of amazing from her. 

What song is the biggest skip? 

Israel: “Birds sing of money” is definitely my biggest skip. It’s a wonderful introduction to the album but not one I’m too keen on hearing every time I play the 15-song record.

Moore: If I had to pick one, my biggest skip from the album would have to be “1942.” While the track is touching, it doesn’t quite hit the emotional notes of some of the other more soulful numbers, such as “Last Heartbreak Song.” Its sombre tone also means that it might be one of the last songs to be reached for, if the vibe called for something more upbeat.  

What song is the biggest potential hit? 

Damilola: I can really see “Woman Commando” taking off as a baddie anthem and going triple platinum on girls trips this summer. Twerk-ready beat, karaoke-able lyrics, and a general feel-good vibe, I can’t see any other outcome. 

Nwanneamaka: We LOVE a good collab and as much as there’s huge international names on this project, my pick would have to  “Goodbye(Warm up),” with Asake. The rhythmic instrumentals are so radio-ready but paired with Ayra’s lush vocals, you’re bound to get on your feet within the first few seconds of track. Then Mr Money swoops in with the “Oh baby plea-e ease, Oh baby plea-e ease,” I’m sold! My ears also caught on to those light log drums. I don’t see it being any other song. 

Overall first impressions 

Damilola: I was very touched by this album, and the importance of the storytelling stood out the most to me. We can really hear, feel and sometimes even see the story being told on each song, and she weaves through almost every theme one experiences at the infancy of adulthood seamlessly. Underneath the bops and ballads, we’re hearing a raw confession from a young woman coming of age, accepting of everything she’s experienced and looking forward to learning more lessons as she goes along. She sounds strapped and ready for the rollercoaster ride the rest of adulthood usually is.

Tayo: Overall, I think this was a fantastic sophomore effort from the budding megastar. Listening to this album from top to bottom, you can really hear all the different ways that she’s transformed into the artist and young woman we’ve watched over the years. From ballads about the pain of young romance and the realisation that boundaries are necessary even when you love someone, to her reflections on grief and the ways it can shape a person’s worldview, young people need a voice that speaks for them and Ayra Starr is a more than worthy messenger. 

Deeply resonant themes articulated in her signature relatable style, set against a mix of moving instrumentals and catchy, fun beats? What more could we possibly ask for?

[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]