Sean Tizzle, Harrysong & The Art of the Comeback Album

Afropop has seen some memorable returns this year

The music industry can be a daunting scene. With so much new music orbiting the scene, being consistent in the expected sense often leads to burnout. Especially when the artist is past their prime, and the focus of the mainstream audience isn’t necessarily on them. In 2023 however, a number of artists have released spellbinding albums, enlivening the soundscape of the wider Afropop scene through their relentless search to reach deeper into the motivating factors behind their music. 

It used to be that artists had a relatively short period at the top of the musical pyramid. During this timeframe, every song they drop is received with gusto, most times constructively reviewed and listened to. After the period of grace however, the audience begins to lose concentrated interest in the artist, possibly due to a number of factors: the most common is that the artist’s grasp on popular culture loosens, and imagery that was once riveting becomes lacklustre, at least in the ears of the majority. Another factor is the simpler premise of a weakened attention span, the reason why people would continue to listen to the music they’re familiar with. 


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The peculiar cases of Harrysong and Sean Tizzle open themselves to further scrutiny. Both artists, who became famous in Nigerian pop around the same period, were once savants of the popular tradition. In the case of Harrysong, he emerged from that most common spheres of the industry; the live band. He’d been the vocalist of a group before he met KCee of the KC Presh frame, whose efforts saw the Delta-born artist signed up to Five Star Entertainment and consequently got introduced to influential players within the music industry. 

In his prime, Harrysong was one of the most potent songwriters around. Industry insiders would attest to the fact that he wrote a majority of the hits recorded by KCee during the period, his awareness for melody and the catchy lyric almost unparalleled throughout the industry. A more noteworthy direction was the cache of hits he accrued, from the Olamide-assisted love ode “I’m In Love” to “Kolombo” and “Beta Pikin”. While the first song was delivered in the bluesy inflections of English, the latter duo were energetic and wedged into everyday narratives, ostensibly from rural landscapes where lust blurs into reality in often comic ways. 

Even years after this period, after the ubiquity of “Reggae Blues”, Harrysong still had some hits down the line. “Baba for the Girls”, “Under The Duvet” and “Selense” were released between 2016 and 2018, yet retained the musician on the popular channels of the time. However, that period also coincided with Harrysong’s exit from Five Star, a transition that wasn’t the most seamless but executed with as much grace as both parties could muster. 2019 was a defining period for afropop, and through all that change, Harrysong slithered into the cracks. He continued to release music, mostly singles, but none of them made a solid mark. 

It’s a similar predicament for Sean Tizzle. Perhaps his story is even more poignant, considering the situations surrounding his breakout. After making his entry with the era-domineering “Sholee”, a lot of eyes and ears were on the youngster. His creative partnership with D Tunes birthed a number of hits, including “Perfect Gentleman”, “Loke Loke” and “Igi Orombo”. The latter two songs featured 9ice and Tiwa Savage respectively, a sort of respectable nod from seniors in the game. Like a fine dish, the music of Sean Tizzle was savoured by everyone. 

Winning the coveted Next Rated at the 2014 Headies over a stellar cast which included Burna Boy, Phyno and Seyi Shay, a lot of expectations were naturally placed on Tizzle. Quickly proving his quality, ‘The Journey’ was released, a classic body of work that captured brilliantly the peculiarities of its era. Listening to the album now feels like entering a time machine, carried on the lovely old school vibes that Sean Tizzle embodied. 

However, the period of ubiquity for Sean Tizzle was even shorter than Harrysong’s. Some have alluded to his falling out with key collaborators like D Tunes among others, others suggested his pride was responsible for his subsequent unpopularity, but if there’s anything the Nigerian audience has shown, it doesn’t need you to do anything particularly outlandish to fall out of love. As long as they’re others who’ve come along offering better-realised versions of the music you were once loved for, it’s almost certain the market will move on. 

So far, 2Face Idibia has been the SI unit for reinvention. Through collaborations, entering deeper into his craft to reflect his versatility, the veteran has kept his name in the conversation for the better part of two decades. The recent albums of Harrysong and Sean Tizzle demonstrate their readiness to follow in the same direction. 

‘God Amongst Men’ has fifteen songs running just over forty minutes. Perhaps a tad extensive for the current market, but Harrysong makes it worth the listener’s time. He doesn’t execute this through divorcing his entire style, rather parsing his trademark flourishes through the prism of curating a contemporary experience. 

The titular opener has a sombre minimalism reminiscent of “recognise” off Omah Lay’s ‘Boy Alone’. In stark, revealing lyrics, he sings, “I know you don’t like me, but you don’t have a choice/ the grace of music found me, so you don’t have a chance”. Preceding tracks like “One Bottle” and “She Knows” showcase the vibrancy of Harrysong’s vocals paired alongside elements of contemporary afropop, like the bouncy drum pattern on the former and the featured acts Olamide and Fireboy DML on the latter. He cedes way for the YBNL duo, with Fireboy delivering the hook on the latter while Harrysong’s evocative vocals provide a riveting backdrop which contributes to the song’s fullness. 

“Tangerine” and “Chi Chon Thin” reveal this curatorial prowess. To be fair, Harrysong has been one of the better curators of Nigerian pop, as evident from “Reggae Blues” which still stands as one of the greatest posse cuts of the modern pop era. “Tangerine” is one of my favourites from the album; a mid-tempo cut whose sweetness is the opposite of its titular fruit, the chorus is a remarkable utilisation of words. “I ask for something/ Something tangible, this na tangerine; I hope I’m capable, you’re just too good to be true,” he sings with infectious lightness. The latter features Kolaboy of the “Kolapiano” fame, and he brings that Igbo music flavour.

It’s not hard to see when an album works. The pacing in ‘God Amongst Men’ is sustained, through the deliberate pairing of bops and slow tunes. A song like “Madingo” combines both sensibilities, its production the most striking in an album full of well-produced records. Ending the project with “My Story”, Harrysong calls upon the storytelling technique that’s worked so well for him in the past. Recounting tales from that era, and also his recent past, gives the project a humane touch after all, a streak of humility amidst the pop flagrance. 

Similarly, Sean Tizzle returns to mastered elements. As demonstrated on ‘The Journey’, an understated broodiness lies in his vocals. Even when he’s singing about colourful things like love and debauchery, the restrained husk gives a sweetly dark feeling to every lyric. Hence he’s always had the vocal range best suited for reflective stories, and early into ‘Dues’ he gets into that zone.

“Al Barakah” immediately accounts for his absence on the scene, a reggae bounce setting Tizzle off on his thoughtful spree. Accounting for his perception in the public, and how anticipation built and collapsed over the nine years since his debut, it’s a very potent opener. The chorus yet leaves an optimistic taste for the listener, shaping up the rest of the listen well. From “Witness” to “With You”, he doesn’t let the ball drop, doubling down on the bops as eagerly as he reaches into self to unearth fresh stories. “And if you never see things, make you no go talk say you dun see things,” he sings in the former, set by the melodious strings and measured drums evoking a sparse Highlife feel. 

The production here is stellar, suggesting that the artist opened his studio and process to talented young producers. Sometimes what causes sonic stagnation isn’t merely due to the artist, but also the producers he worked with. Nas hadn’t released an album in a while then he met Hitboy and he released four albums in two years, including the celebrated ‘Kings Disease’ trilogy. The beats on ‘Dues’ are riveting and colourful; well mixed and mastered, the vocals of Tizzle emerge the most beautiful it has in years, perhaps at a level that even supercedes ‘The Journey’. 

A fine sonic trio emerges on “Extraordinary”, “Focus” and “Dance”. Mellow drums are the main element in the first, its mood satisfied; the second picks up the pace, adapting Fuji drums amidst the serene loops; concluding the run is the song combining both tempos, carried with Congolese-style guitar playing as Sean commands the dancefloor. 

At just thirty five minutes, the album is direct and deceptively simple. As reflected on its artistic cover, Sean Tizzle doesn’t just relay stories of strife; he’s as willing to soundtrack the more joyful moments of his life. In that way, ‘Dues’ has a tonal complexity that contributes deeply to its richness. “Adofo” is a late album excellence; interpolating Lionel Richie’s African-themed “All Night Long,” its stripped sound assumes the soothing feeling of water after hours of playing football. Ending the album with “Sean Plenty” and “Paid My Dues”, there’s an endearing humanity whose inflections are accentuated by the production. Background vocals and horns enliven the former; shekeres and reflective keys do the latter, as Tizzle flexes his falsetto with a measure that pulls off well. A goobye hug worthy of prime Nollywood. 

How then does an already legendary artist reassert dominance? The methods are variant, the possible executions countless, but 2023 has also witnessed elaborate dances from the masters, as they offered sophisticated versions of their favourite skills while showing off the new ones they’ve newly picked on. 

I first heard Baaba Maal on the grossly underrated EP ‘Johannesburg’ from Mumford & Sons, who recorded the five-track project with Baaba Maal, the indie South African band Beatenberg, and The Very Best. Ecclesestial in parts and transformative as a whole, Maal’s powerful vocals formed its most evocative sections, such as the opening on “There Will Be Time” and the chorus of “Ngamila”. By the time I came around to him, a lot of time had passed—although during this time, he hadn’t released any new body of work.

‘Being’ was thus an opportunity to witness the Senegalese master in real time. As promotional materials had revealed, he was stepping undaunted into an electronic soundscape. I was curious to know how the blend with his signature folk would be executed; early on, he replied with an almost smirk, in the first song “Yerimayo Celebration”, a glorious, rapturous record which seemed like the start of the village’s most important festival. “Freak Out” featured The Very Best, with drum progressions that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Beyonce album. Even the inflections from Baaba are steeped in a rap-evoking cadence, carried on an effervescent energy that’s recognisably youthful. 

At just seven songs, the individual complexity of each record however lends an epic feeling ‘Being’. In rare moments, the pomp is set aside for sensitivity, such as on “Ndungu Ruumi”, where a somber spiritual source enlivens the inflections of Baaba. The rootsy guitar is more audible than it’s been all project long; even when drums enter, it’s with an occultist mystique, the soundtrack of a procession that leads to an otherworldly experience. “Casamance Nights” also has a stripped atmosphere, portending the well-achieved mixture of the familiar and the exotic which Baaba Maal pulls throughout the album.

In contrast, TY Bello sticks to established techniques on ‘HEAVEN HAS COME’. As always, gospel’s place in the canon of African music cannot be understated or even put into question. Before pop stars went pop, they were in church, learning standard vocals and using instruments they couldn’t otherwise afford or maintain. Thus it’s remained deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Africans, in this particular case, Nigerians.

Whereas her previous album utilised a big feature room, Bello also did the same here. However, given the natural ease of playing together that’s on audible display, the choices reveal themselves as aspirational: they aim to evoke a choir’s grandness. Pop-leaning acts like Johnny Drille, Nosa and Folabi Nuel feature here, as well as purist savants Dunsin Oyekan and Tope Alabi. Most of the artists are relatively on-the-rise, revealing the open-minded interactions that formed the creation process of the album. “He Fights For Me” and “Loved By You” are some highlights from its one-hour plus runtime, vividly encapsulating its majestic, yet lived-in atmosphere. 

That open-mindedness brings us to the the most popular of them all, Davido, whose ‘Timeless’ has rightly been dubbed a potential classic. Its greatness owes a lot to the grand staging of the album, its rollout which effortlessly blended into the artistry. Announcing a comeback with “OVER DEM” has a number of the elements that makes Davido who he is, and throughout the album he doesn’t lose focus of himself. As though newly convinced of his legendary status, every word strikes with verve and emotional honesty, from the pensive themes of “LCND” to the triumphant closing note of “Champion Sound”

Comeback albums can be difficult to pull off, but these projects show it’s not impossible. In this particular context, the comeback isn’t determined solely by how long the artist dropped their last project, but also how much has changed in the soundscape since then. The absence or presence that’s gone on during their process, while the release of the album returns to place those subtle or significant shifts in perspective.