Why R&B Deserves More Recognition In Nigerian Pop Conversations
the genre and its attendant culture is way more influential than you think
the genre and its attendant culture is way more influential than you think
The tree of African-birthed music has many offshoot branches, of which R&B is one of the strongest. As an art form, it’s also perhaps the most underrated among genres created by Black people—wielding neither the sonic flamboyance of Jazz or the lyrical ingenuity of Rap, the rhythm and blues is true to the natural zeal to sing one’s joys and pains into existence. A miracle of popular music, R&B’s embodiment of vocal strength and melodies as a portal to great emotions have been channelled and tweaked over the decades, and Nigeria hasn’t been missing from this conversation.
Over the past three years, there’s been a consistent movement of R&B-influenced acts into the centre of the country’s mainstream pop scene. To chart that progression would necessarily summon the history of our music, but this is the truth: R&B has long resided in the shimmering glare of mainstream attention, but very sparingly has its notable practitioners been spread across eras. Presently, there’s a lot more musicians audibly influenced by the sensibilities of the genre, even though the focus on “Afrobeats” have led to some obscuring of their skillset and the musical roots that informs them.
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Just as Western Hip-Hop/Rap spurned imitations from early pioneers of the Afropop genre, so also did R&B influence an entire generation of hitmakers from 2Baba who endlessly shared his affection for women to soul-singer Asa to P-Square, Chidinma, Omawunmi, Simi, Flavour, Praiz, Nonso Amadi and many more. Perhaps the biggest primer for R&B’s re-entry into cultural dominance can be traced to YBNL/Empire’s Fireboy DML. Though many listeners got to know him from “Jealous,” the groundwork for the record’s success was accumulated during the YBNL Compilation tape. Before the pandemic came into sight, before the sound of Nigerian pop slowed considerably, Olamide was strengthening the foundations of his house. The compilation project was the first he’d put together as a label, and the space afforded to Fireboy DML proved that he heard something in his artistry.
Anyone who heard that project could bear witness to that something. From the impeccably-sung notes of “Fire Down” to the sombre reflections in “I’ll Be Fine” and “Finally,” a riveting duet with Temmie Ovwasa, the youngster clearly had the structures of tradition going for him. He became a quintessential old soul in the style of Leon Bridges, connecting the experiences of his generation to the sounds of his foundational years. He tried to etch that awareness into his chosen descriptor, referring to his music as Afro Life which—even though it technically isn’t a genre—has the sort of quirky balance you’d expect from a musician who reveals himself as moulded by the sensibilities of an earlier time.
Those qualities emerged wholly in ‘Laughter, Tears & Goosebumps’, an album that’s largely referred to as classic. If Nigerian pop thrives off hyper-masculinity and the sexualisation of women, the ethos of R&B prefers a less-brazen and more respectful path to highs of a sensual nature. “Need You” was expository of the album’s sensitivity, constructed on warm guitar notes which paved the way for honest, lamba-streaked appraisals of his love interest. The rest of the album runs on that gamut, only colouring the production with more pomp which spawned hit records “Vibration” and “Scatter”.
As initial buzz around ‘LTG’ progressed, it was the slow burning R&B records which took the centre stage. “Energy” and “Like I Do” were particularly invigorating, especially the latter which was produced by P Priime and features among the artist’s most exhilarating performances. Cooing, ad libbing, and really singing, it was reminiscent of Styl Plus’ prime years, a golden era in the sprawling field of Nigerian music.
In the years since Fireboy DML has diversified his output, releasing the eclectic, disco-influenced ‘Apollo’ and ‘Playboy,’ his most conventionally pop album. Other artists however carry the same ethos into their music—the pandemic was perhaps influential in that boom, but throughout that year and afterwards there’s been a recognition of one’s softer parts, especially in subjects of romance. Unlike Fireboy DML however, some of these musicians embrace a post-R&B sensibility—theirs are suffused in external influences, with the production often setting the mood as opposed to singing the emotions into existence.
An important figure in that conversation is melvitto, whose 2019 project ‘The Night Is Young’ showcased his ability to craft eccentric beats attuned to the R&B sensibilities of his guests. Gabzy and Oxlade were standout performers, shedding layers of intimacy on “In Fact” and “Wait For You” respectively. They have both worked with the producer afterwards, especially Gabzy who embodies the experimentation the genre has found in the hands of musicians who operate just outside the glimmer of popular music. Yinka Bernie, WhoIsAkin, to an extent Odunsi (The Engine), Tay Iwar, Ric Hassani, Majesty Lynn, Ria Sean and Azanti all have enviable projects between themselves, using their experiences of masculinity and heterosexual romance to express poignant emotions.
Hassani’s “Thunder Fire You” was an internet sensation at some point—many thought its mix of harsh language and tender singing was funny, but that was really demonstrative of Nigerian-esque stories and how beautifully R&B carried them. “2:25” was an important part of Whoisakin’s ‘Full Moon Weekends,’ relaying bad boy lyrics with a cool tenderness, and in the second verse he actually sings, “2000 R&B typa love is what I want”. Bernie’s ‘Something New’ is emotionally charged with images of mental awareness, while Tay’s ascension to the zenith of pop spaces has been hinged on his mastery of the genre, an ability to relate timeless tension with unparalleled ease and complexity.
Similarly, African women are tapping into a modern take on the R&B coming out of Nigeria. The trio of Tems, Ayra Starr and Fave all lean towards R&B, even though they’re like Fireboy DML in that colourful pop-esque beats have been purposefully employed in their oeuvre as well. Their deep cuts are often tied to their purist selves however, with records like “Higher”, “Beggie Beggie” and “N.B.U” demonstrating that quality. Like their male counterparts, details of troubled romance are etched into the records but with an even more powerful edge of their own agency.
Outside the popular names, there’s a bevvy of women musicians who are stylishly wielding the fizzy allure of R&B as well. Too many to mention all, the figures of Tomi Agape, Joyce Olong, Ria Sean, Tomi Owo, Olayinka Ehi and Falana have captured stirringly the realities and imagination of women with an acquired cosmopolitan taste, presenting their lifestyles as only normal and not an archetypal representation of Nollywood’s city lady—those who, having come from rural backgrounds, quickly get exposed to the intricate, sensual details of urban life and lose their morals along the way.
The R&B buzz has entered the radar of even legacy artists like Tiwa Savage and Simi who have released stripped, soul-baring projects in recent times. ‘To Be Honest’ was the latter’s immersion into the vulnerable, witty direction her seminal ‘Simisola’ embarked on. Simi’s childbirth was then in the recent past, and from its experience the famed songwriter cut stories with a personal edge, exploring responsibility, celebrity, friendship and similar fields of interest. On the other hand, ‘Water & Garri’ had an authentic core which placed the five-song EP within year-best conversations. “Work Fada” took ominous, soulful chants reminiscent of orisha worshippers into a treatise on productivity and the demands of capitalism, while Tay Iwar and American R&B icon Brandy respectively coloured “Special Kinda” and “Somebody’s Son” with their trademark flourishes.
While the folksy duet with Nigeria’s alt-pop prince is my personal favourite off the tape, the Brandy collaboration is unarguably the more transcendental hit record. And like some of Ms. Savage’s finest hits, it connects a vibe that’s unapologetically international (read: R&B inspired) with sunny Afro-inspired rhythms and her vibrant fusion of English and its Nigerian Pidgin equivalent.
In recent times, there’s been a conversation about the standing of R&B globally. Especially in the US, observers have pointed out that the genre isn’t influencing and dominating popular music as it once did. Following the continued ascension of the pop scenes across Latin America, Korea and Africa, the 1940s-birthed R&B is possibly the oldest genre still circulating the perimeters of popular fandom.
Afropop’s recent embracing of its R&B roots speaks rather to an increasing demand for specificity—in truer terms, R&B has always resided here. Sharing the Black American affiliation with Gospel, it’s been a sonic touchstone for as long as would-be musicians began engaging with church singing programs. Nigeria’s relationship with the genre is especially poignant, stretching to the country’s mass cultural importation which began in the nineties. On TV’s, radio, and public events, the choice music was either Hip-Hop or R&B. However, the younger generation and the artists gravitated towards Rap while older generations, more conservative in their outlook, embraced the smooth swag of R&B.
By the 2000’s, R&B was arguably one of the most played genre in the country. Titans had emerged everywhere: 2Face, even though with more amorphous influences, had the genre as a major tool in his arsenal; his fellow ex-Plantashun Boy Faze displayed masterful artistry on his sophomore ‘Independent’; the ever-thrilling Styl Plus delivered classic records like “Olufunmi” and “Imagine That”. The new decade also saw the formation and dominance of Kush, the iconic women-led group whose accomplished R&B sound was striking on their classic album ‘The Experience,’ paired with effervescent writing which leaned on gospel themes.
You also have to recognise P-Square, for being pioneers who made R&B sound grand without losing its emotional resonance. From “Omoge Mi“ to “Am I Still That Special Man,” the duo’s lyrical sensitivity was barely hidden. Another purposeful deployment came on Paul Play’s “Angel Of My Life,” which soundtracked the semi-righteous mode of Nigerian romance at that point in the 2000s. That’s the terrain Flavour and Chike often vaunt into, folding the sweet-talking techniques of Highlife into bluesy and evocative records—“Gollibe” and “Hard To Find” are highlights of this sub-category. Elsewhere, across the country’s north and southern parts the likes of Bez Idakula and Johnny Drille infuse a folkloric edge to their Western-styled sonics, and as such their records might sometimes be classified as R&B as much as Rock, owing to the deeply layered fusion it possesses.
In the mid 2010’s, Darey Art Alade and Banky W were cleanly-cut purveyors of the sound, offering distinct versions of R&B but with unmistakable reliance on their vocal strengths. While the latter stayed largely purist, the Empire Mates Entertainment co-founder had eyes keenly fixed on expanding his reach as a pop star.
Somewhere in their middle, you’ll find Wande Coal—the highly revered musician who’s an inspiration for many names in this piece. From Firebo DMLy to Tay, a mention of Wande’s influence has never been far away. What was this Black Diamond cut from? That was the question of everyone as he ripped maximalist beats with the same ease with which he flowed over slow production, inventing melodies from an ethereal stratosphere only he had access to. His vocals were very accomplished in the R&B style, yes, but Wande’s versatility was enviable even among the biggest figures associated with the genre. Who else could deliver “Who Born The Maga” and “Ololufe” in the same album?
Oxlade is the most obvious progeny of Wande Coal, and he hasn’t been impatient to play down the influence. From vocal techniques to Yoruba-stewed songwriting, the musician represents the shining light of R&B on the Nigerian mainstream. It took mere seconds on his debut project ‘Oxygene’ for him to demonstrate his affiliations (“O2”) and later on, toeing the vulnerably hurt path with “WEAKNESS”. Many are of the opinion the musician needs to expressively explore his R&B roots on a project, but he’s continued however to impress with succinct projects and singles. “KU LO SA” has been one of the year’s biggest releases, taking off on TikTok while Usher recently brought Oxlade out at the Global Citizen Festival which was held recently in Accra. Considering how often the dance-ready songs of P-Square were compared to Usher, it bears on the position of Afropop today that he’s bringing Oxlade to his stage and dancing the routine with him.
Also deserving of R&B platitudes is Chike, whose execution plays more to melancholy and theatric constructions. He’s a famed storyteller, using his duo of critically-acclaimed albums ‘Boo of the Booless’ and ‘The Brother’s Keeper’ to peruse love and its potential for catharsis, pain, and eventual destruction. On the 2022-released album, records like “Enough” and “Nothing Less, Nothing More” were suffused with great emotional depth carried by Chike’s powerful singing. Sparse touches of percussion and sombre piano notes formed a thin layer of sound underneath his vocals, which was strikingly reminiscent of the practices of the singing talent shows he passed through on his way to pop superstardom.
In the aftermath of Afropop’s boom in global markets, R&B offers the scene a way to diversify their positioning. Rather than colour everyone with mainstream connections, the deliberate invocation of the genre can point an essential finger to the ebbs of musical history across several African countries. No two countries interpret R&B the same way, because the modes of daily lifestyle audibly influences the music that’s being created. And while ‘blues’ might be evoked with a strong note, it takes far more immersion to strike the appropriate rhythm.
Experimentation has however been in full bloom, with artists embodying the post-R&B ethos championed by Canadian musicians like Drake and Bryson Tiller. The poignant records of Nonso Amadi is created from this perspective which deftly shifts between R&B and ambient music and Rap. Listen to records like “Do Not Disturb” and “temptations,” you’ll see Omah Lay falls under this category while CKay’s “you” also encapsulates the breezy potentials of R&B when paired with the raw energy of Amapiano drum patterns.
All this points to the vivacity and ever-expanding relevance of R&B. Whether it’s eventually recognised by the creators for its utility and candour remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt R&B has deftly reclaimed its influence close to the centre of mainstream Afropop. From 2019 till now, fewer genres have been consistently adapted while remaining timelessly potent. If you aren’t convinced of that status, a closer listen to the newly-released songs should sufficiently convince you because R&B is alive and well.
Featured image credits/NATIVE