8 must-hear projects you may have missed this year

EPs from Shalom Dubas, Tkay Maidza, Davolee, Chike and more!

Globally accessible streaming platforms have made music ever more available to listeners around the world, which means we have a host of music, old and new, at our fingertips. Whilst it’s great to be able to tap into divergent sounds from far away places, it can be a bit overwhelming to keep up with all the new drops, which means lots of songs and projects flying under our radar. Though this year, we’ve had a lot more time on our hands to explore new musicians and to meditate over a score of new music, it is still impossible for anyone to have listened to the plethora of releases that have come this year, and many of them do deserve our ear.

In light of this, as your resident music experts, NATIVE are bringing you seven of the best albums from the team’s rotation that you probably, unfortunately, missed this year. From recent drops such as Tkay Maidza’s ‘Last Year Was Weird Vol. 2‘ to the Valentine’s Day release ‘Boo of the Booless‘ by Chike, these albums are records you’re going to want to get hip to, so read on and jam on.

You’re welcome.

‘Festival Bar’ – Davolee

Davolee has always retained the spirit of an underdog even when he had an A-list act like Olamide in his corner. He first got a taste of the limelight through his brief feature on “Pepper Dem Gang”, one of the lead singles from Olamide’s ‘The Glory’ album. However, it wasn’t until the following year that he proved his mastery at creating storytelling raps in Yoruba with “Festival Bar”, his debut single. The picturesque tale documenting Davolee’s struggles as a bartender in Lagos affirmed his rap prowess and potential for longevity, after he closed the song with the promise of a sequel.

Though Davolee had severed ties with the YBNL mogul when he shared the 4-track EP, ‘Festival Bar’ in June, the tape’s impact was still felt across the Nigerian music scene.

Davolee had already captured the attention of music lovers with the first two instalments, “Festival Bar 1 & 2” which were released as singles. His narration of the more unsavoury aspects of the Lagos lifestyle already reserved his spot as an artist to look out for and fans couldn’t wait to hear the rest of his empathetic story about his personal journey from being a lower-class Lagosian to discovering his talent and earning financial liberation.

Davolee continued to detail his personal ups and downs over different yet similar sounding ominous hip-hop instrumentals through the rest of the project. As promised at the end of “Festival Bar 2”, Davolee finally shared the story of how his talent got discovered by Olamide on “Festival Bar 3”. Saying “62 steady days ni mo fin drop bars(I rapped for 62 days)/ Sori IG koto di pe eyin gbo bayi(On IG before you could hear me like this) / Gbogbo celebrity yin ni mo be fun repost(I begged all your favourite celebrities for reposts)”, Davolee’s vivid depiction of his struggle to get discovered highlights the hustle for social media validation, while also leaving some philosophical tidbits for those who can relate to his story to soak up game for themselves.

On the final track, “Festival Bar 4”, we get a few bright moments as he celebrates the success of his solo single, “Way”. However, most of the track continues to linger in sombre reflection as he recounted the criticism he faced for leaving YBNL and also that Olamide had agreed to still help him out. A little snooping around will show that the EP is distributed by Inglemind, a company which works closely with Empire who Olamide has recently signed a JV with. This buttresses some of the things he states in the EP, especially with regards to his relationship with Olamide still being solid, and having suffered no actual severed ties.

Altogether, the project is a beautifully tragic narration of the struggles and frustration of the streets of Lagos from Oshodi to Ikotun. Despite the melancholic narration, the portrayal of Davolee’s trails and tribulation offers an inspiring philosophy that there’s light at the end of the tunnel as we hear him go from struggling for what to eat to struggling to deliver a hit song. Through the exhilarating real-time narration of his career trajectory, he’s able to keep listeners engaged for the 15-minute duration of the tape, without needing a catchy hook to water down the severity of his story. Very few artists can dream of accomplishing this feat and by the time the project ends, he sounds like he’s still warming up as he promises to keep us updated as his life story continues to unfold.

– Debola Abimbolu 

‘Last Year Was Weird Vol. 2’ – Tkay Maidza

Zimbabwean-born, Australian singer-songwriter and rapper Tkay Maidza is an indubitable talent on the rise and there is no greater evidence of this glaring fact than the brilliant 6-piece EP  ‘Last Year Was Weird Vol.2’ she released recently.  

On the second instalment of a three-part mixtape series, Tkay Maidza widens the potency of her arsenal by offering a selection of genre-mashing hits, laced with subtle hints of pop, alt-r&b, hip-hop and dance music. Opening song “My Flowers” finds her analysing herself and the thoughts in her mind. “My petals fly, they can fly but they can fall if I don’t take time” she sings, admitting that although she has the potential for greatness, she’s well aware of her limitations. This heavily contrasts with bass-dropping number “Awake” which features JPEGMAFIA. Here, she’s confident in the person she is, as she sends menacing punchlines to the competition. While she waxes poetic of her masterful grasp of hip-hop, she openly confronts living with attention deficit disorder, but rather than let this affect her, she’s sworn to stay up plotting. 

Elsewhere on dreamy “24K”, she admits this confidence is because “[she’s] been blessed by the gods” and moves accordingly, no matter whose toes she steps on in the process. The narrative focus leaves her room to experiment with flows and music. No two songs sound alike and that seems to be the project’s sweet spot, typifying the reason why the pop-leaning rap has attained new heights in recent years. As for romance in her life, she’s ten steps ahead of men and the tricks they play. On “Sad”, she purposely ignores her lovers calls, wryly teasing that his  “small hand [was] tryna play a big boy game” while on Kari Faux-assisted “Don’t Call Again” she asks for distance from a lover who won’t stop ringing her line. Rarely do you come across a projet this neatly packed with these many stylistic choices offering something in it for almost every listener. 

Her versatility is even more impressive considering the album’s length. Sitting at just a few minutes under the 30-minute mark, the project is a brief but ambitious offering from a star on the rise while retaining all the experimentation of a DIY-artist. In a world where gatekeepers wish to pigeonhole female rappers into limited roles to occupy in rap, ‘Last Year Was Weird Vol. 2’ is an exhilarating cut that occupies space in its own right, reminding us that hip-hop/rap could use several voices like Tkay Maidza. Stop sleeping on the girls!

– Tami Makinde 

‘Boo of the Booless’  – Chike

Released in commemoration of Valentine’s Day, this debut album from singer/songwriter cum actor (AfMag’s Battleground), Chike, comprises of a series of honest love notes, penned in pain, in adoration, in longing ness and in dedication to the women that have filled Chike with the blissful sensation. Clearly, this honest resonated, as the project spent many weeks at number 1 on Apple Music’s top 100 album charts, and still remains in the top 10.  ‘Boo of the Booless’ opens with gentle humming set to folk guitars, all held together by rhythm-keeping shakers. Chike’s strong vocals sing of the beauty of having people love you truly, yet the slow tempo and the folk inclinations of “Beautiful People” give the track a wistful ambience, almost suggesting that he has lost the people he celebrates. Over the song’s bridge, Chike explains why he so dearly holds onto his baby (the chorus’ repeated line), singing that there are ugly people who both fail you and bail on you – so he must cherish the “Beautiful People” who love him and make him smile.

Up Next is a Ric Hassani team up, one of only three featured artists on the 14-track body of work, alongside M.I and Anambra’s finest, Zoro. On “Nakupenda”, where Ric Hassani’s silky vocals take the song to new heights, Ric and Chike compete over the same girl, both promising her the world and more. Chike’s collaboration with M.I, on the other hand, is just that: collaborative, not competitive. A passionate r&b leaning number that promises a lasting love, “Forever” depicts an avowed M.I., who lays out his future with his partner, promising that he will never leave her, come rain come shine.

As the album’s title suggests, ‘Boo of the Booless’ approaches love in a hyper-romantic way, even falling into the Romeo and “Julie” cliches on the primarily Igbo record “Roju”. However, whilst the first half makes love out to be entirely fantastical, after the album’s seventh track, “Finders Keepers” – it’s bright saxophone, which is even afforded a solo, and repetitive dance-like chorus signalling the end of something good – ‘Boo of the Booless’ takes a turn for the worst. Ushered in by Chike’s interrogation of his girlfriend, before going on to explain why he is so “Insecure”, this turning point illustrates the multiple sides of love, and might be more relatable to those of us who haven’t quite cracked its complex code.

Love loses its appeal. “Out Of Love” describes an all too familiar feeling of being stranded in love, Chike’s partner confessing over the chorus, “Oh Chike, this is hard for me to say/But I’m gonna say it anyway/I’ve fallen out of love with you.“Forgive” will remind listeners of their most recent messy break-up that left both parties hurt and jaded, whilst “Faithful” brings back the anxiety you feel when you cross paths with a past flame again. “Faithful”’s chorus is a strong contemplative session, where Chike works through his torn heart; asserting that he is faithful to his current girlfriend, seeing his former love has brought up feelings in him that he thought were long gone. “I have someone who loves me, even though I think that I, that I, that I love you” Chike stutters, trying to grapple with his emotions, before ultimately concluding that he’s faithful at the song’s poignant, climatic end.

Boo of the Booless’ is all wrapped up with a gracious thank you to God “for watching over [him],” and “fighting all of [his] battles” floating between English and Igbo, as is typical of a praise song. This is where we see Phyno’s progeny, Zoro, who takes ahold of the second verse, delivering a vernacular rap to swoon over, aiding Chike in his ever-grateful dedication to God. “Watching Over Me” is a good reminder that after all is said and done on earth, for believers, the most important love of all is the love of God.

– Adewojumi Aderemi

‘Easy To Love Me Now pt. 1’ – Dara Alamutu

Dara Alamutu’s music is honest without being overindulgent. This identity is what makes his excellent recently released project, ‘Easy To Love Me Now, Pt. I’  a collection of succinct and powerful snapshots of the rapper’s current state of mind. He makes an entire statement of immense growth where he speaks his truth without needlessly projecting them on others.

The nine songs are a result of a man who wields his imperfections as his superpower. Dara writes and raps with the wizened edge of someone with a new lease on life, and while he doesn’t overly dwell on the errors of the past, it all feels very well-earned. Hinging his growth on the notion there are only lessons and no losses, ‘Easy To Love’ is largely driven by forward momentum. Dara places his sights firmly ahead, only stealing glances at the past through his side mirror.

For someone who’s moving into his late twenties, wanting to settle and have kids is a worthy & normal aspiration, but there’s also an explicit understanding that the choices of the present are the foundation for what the future looks like. For many young people, getting their financials in order is an important pre-requisite for starting a family, and Dara is no different. On the intro track, “Too Easy”, he admits that building an estate for his “Babies” is the major driving force for his constant money chase, however, the pressure isn’t driving him to desperate measures.

Over the playful piano riff and bouncy trap drums of “Legal”, Dara brags about making his money while staying on the straight and narrow path. It’s the type of responsible flexing that many might consider corny, except one of the biggest rap songs of last year had the rapper revelling in making his wealth “legitly”. Dara’s mum also makes an affecting appearance on “Legal”, name-checking Africa’s richest man in her short, admonishing speech. Beyond that cameo, too, the influence of Dara’s parents also looms large on the project, with references to the ways they’ve enriched his life (“I Got A Papi Who Be Showing Me The Ropes”, he recites on “Omo Yoruba (Money)”).

The beat curation on ‘Easy To Love’ serves to point at the emotions: Dara accompanies his free association raps on “My Back” with a chunky bassline and thudding bass, while the clarity of “Live Out Our Dreams” is underpinned by radiant piano loops and boom bap drums soaked in morning sunlight. These self-produced jazz and soul-indebted instrumentals, albeit with a modern twist, sound gorgeous when they ride out, but in the grand scheme, they ensure that the project comes together as more than the sum of its parts.

Sure, Dara gives us a resounding portrait of what it looks like to embrace growth, but at the same time, we get to experience a musical polymath deliver some of the best rap music of this year, till date.

– Dennis Ade-Peter 

‘Mint, Green’ – Shalom Dubas

Shalom Dubas is incredibly self-aware. As she’s exponentially grown into a better-rounded artist with each release, her constant selling point is that she’s cultivated a knack for lived-in music, allowing her to hone in on a range of emotions with personal sincerity. Shalom’s latest EP, ‘Mint, Green’, is a statement of self-acceptance where she reaffirms personal quirks and reinforces her ambitions. It also coincides with the coalescing of her abilities as a rapper and singer into a seamless and entrancing whole.

Last year, Shalom teamed up with producer and close collaborator, Toyin Ores, for ‘Oakwood Ave’, a joint project that functioned as a loose and musically varied (re-)introduction. This time around, she’s tightened things up a bit for ‘Mint, Green’, a brisk set that is defined by an in-built sense of intimacy and honesty. It doesn’t take much to get into it, though, Shalom’s contemplations are matched by a conversational and sometimes playful tone, a mix that’s perfectly accompanied by radiant musical choices. Between the funk-lite bounce of “See Me Now” and crunchy boom-bap on “The Biz”, production on the 6-song set is a fine blend of neo-soul and hip-hop that feels like a natural evolution of what the Soulquarians were pulling off in the early ‘00s.

Shalom inhabits this sound with poise, slipping between warm melody runs and nimble raps, a fluid mode of delivery that’s perfectly suited to her writing style, which feels very much akin to Ladipoe’s famed lifelines style. In as much as she can be clever, she’s most resonant when her lyrics are artfully plain: “persistence is all I need/quality friends is all I need and a girl is going far”, she sings on the pep talk-styled opener, “’02 Thicke”; “no more sugar-coating shit/dissecting myself, I came here to speak/peeped I won’t reach no peak if I don’t publicise my lows”, she muses with utter honesty on “The Biz”. With ‘Mint, Green’, Shalom lets us know that she’s at ease within and is perfectly fine constantly working until she reaches the best version of herself. It’s a gripping portrait that’s finely distilled into an EP that appreciates with each listen.

– Dennis Ade-Peter 

“Bond” – Kemena

Kemena doesn’t like genres. In a time where artists pull influences from stylistically disparate sounds, it’s now normal to dislike strict musical categories because it places them in a box. On his debut album, ‘Bond’, Kemena earns his aversion towards tags, curating an eclectic and experiential project that drifts across varying sound hybrids without coming across as unnecessarily scattered. Serving as producer for all but one track on the project, it’s a testament to his range and imaginative execution.

With a clear affinity for big sounds, Kemena’s musical choices are always bright whether the instrumental arrangements are minimal or broadly composite. On opening track “Ibadan”, he sings against a grand piano and a stack of his own layered back-up vocals; “International” merges indie folk tricks with a distinctly African bounce; “Inugo” is powered by the rustic rhythms of Igbo folk; while “Down” crosses over into rock territory. The grounding factor to the sonic variety on display is Kemena’s voice – a baritone with soulful twang that’s flexible and consistently reliable in expressing a myriad of emotions.

True to its title, ‘Bond’ explores romantic connections and the circumstances that make or break them, from the magic of when things are going smoothly to the inevitable sourness that follows when it goes off the rails. It’s not widest-ranging topic nor is it the most creative, however, it’s rich enough for Kemena to present his powers as a writer with a knack for fascinating narratives. On the standout song, “Only You”, he gets into his storytelling bag, singing from the perspective of someone who’s been cheated on one too many times and has finally reached breaking point. “Feeling” is eerily similar to Omah Lay’s “Damn” in concept, a song that plays into the self-aware trope of questioning the merit of unconditional love.

A strong front to back listen, Kemena keeps things constantly refreshing while carrying the album almost exclusively. ‘Bond’ is a stellar, full-length introduction, don’t let it slip under your radar.

– Dennis Ade-Peter

“Generation z” – JELEEL!

Besides flashy jewelry and colourful hairstyles, showmanship seems to be a dying art in music with more focus on self awareness and emotional maturity these days. American-based Nigerian artist, JELEEL! seems on a mission to bring this back, however, with his penchant for entertaining fans with backflips stunts, shirt tearing and showing off his bulk body build. While his energetic performances are fashioned to draw crowds, it’s his experimental take on hip-hop that makes fans out of his gawking spectators.

JELEEL!’s auto-tuned rockstar voice puts him among the set of unorthodox hip-hop acts breaking out of the mould and for his latest project, ‘Generation Z’, he continued to expand the barriers of hip-hop while also channelling his rage into political activism. After witnessing the traumatic event of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of an American police officer in May, JELEEL got energized to rage. On the opening track, “Red Light!” we hear blaring sirens and clattering drums that conjure an instant sense of tumult. And because the project was released while people were out protesting and rioting the killing in the streets, JELEEL’s combative energy and his unorthodox brand of hip-hop reiterated the popular sentiment that there was an urgent need for change.

With expert production from Connie, Zaro Vega, Ricky Remedy and Aryay, Asoteric and Jonas Jeberg, the project explored a variety of sounds, from hip-hop, dance-pop and reggae-dancehall. He glided across the different genres with agility while his upbeat energy and his unique auto-tuned voice is able to pull the different frenetic moments of hardcore and punk flourishes into a uniform style. Partnering with his Nigerian brother in arms as the project’s only featured artist on “HotShot”, he also made the world feel smaller as he illustrated how black music is interconnected through their collaboration to protest against oppression.

Though JELEEL!’s ‘Generation Z’ mines some of the trauma of racial discrimination, it also celebrates black power and art in the face of oppression. His rich voice and confident songwriting offered music as a balm to heal the trauma of our time, as he weaved a project that reflects today’s youth-led social justice movement and showcases the progressive music birth from having multi-cultural influences.

– Debola Abimbolu

“New Tangents In Kampala, London and Nairobi, Vol. 1” – Various Artists

Put together by Extra Soul Perception – a collaborative creative collective name after saxophonist Monk Higgins’ album release in 1968 – ‘New Tangents In Kampala, London and Nairobi Vol 1.’ convokes a number of artists from the three countries of which those cities are capital, Uganda, England and Kenya. With the aim of exploring all the various tangents which soul music can take, this project is as eclectic in its sound as it is encompassing in its musicians, who recorded the project in a writing camp in Nairobi.

Dutifully paying homage to their roots from the very first song, entitled “Ancestry”, ‘New Tangents’ opens brashly, with London’s ten Lex Amor chanting in her indigenous tongue, set to a bassy electronic beat, credited to Hibotep (Uganda) and Faizal Ddamba Mostrixx (Uganda), who is known for his afro-cosmic productions. The EP’s soul finds itself in “Probably Never”, which features mesmerising keys from Joe Armon-Jones, a jazz keyboardist rising rapidly in the UK. Frequent collaborators, Arnon-Jones and Maxwell Owin (UK) provide the stunning instrumentals that Xenia Manasseh (one of this year’s emPawa30, hailing from Nairobi, Kenya) devours.

Inviting the disco into the tape, on “Roses” (whose star on Apple Music would indicate its been a crowd favourite) Lynda Dawn (UK) and Bes Kept, from the, guides us through feelings of uncertainty in love, communicating the unfortunate realist that “nothing’s ever guaranteed”. Over four minutes long, the length of “Roses” is matched by the song that follows it, “In My Soul”, stretched out by its repetitive takes that hammer the invigorating beats straight into our souls. We do feel it, as Kenya’s beautifully endowed songstress, Karun repeatedly asks us. As another grandiose interplanetary Faizal Mostrixx production sets in motion, Karun also switches out her formidable vocals for an added spark to the already heated record.

After “In My Soul” comes the EPs fourth and final track, “Utokapo”, which plays into rural styles of music-making. Vocally led by Labdi (Kenya), “Utokapo” which exists entirely in the vernacular, is reminiscent of a traditional dance performed by the Digo tribe in Kenya. Springing to life to the tune of their own voices, Kayamb (shakers) and Chivoti (flutes), the Digo’s Kayamba looks like a likely source of inspiration for K15’s inspiriting instrumental backing for Labdi’s emotive performance. Through these five tracks and ten musicians ‘New Tangent’ brings together a range of musical identities into one thoroughly enjoyable 15-minute course.

Listen for yourself:

– Adewojumi Aderemi

Featured Image Credits: NATIVE

Words by Debola Abimbolu, Dennis Ade-Peter, Tami Makinde and Adewojumi Aderemi