Asake, the breakout pop star from Nigeria who owned 2022

ASAKE’S first commercial releases, beginning with the song Lady in 2020, didn’t really portend a seismic shift in Nigeria’s teeming Afrobeats scene. The 27-year-old genre-blending Nigerian singer and rapper has a tongue-in-cheek delivery and a jocular persona. He writes nonsensical, self-deprecating rhymes with hip-hop-influenced consumerist themes and could easily be mistaken for a less threatening Naira Marley – a street-savvy Afrobeats mainstay-wannabe.

Author
SANYA OSHA, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town

And then, in September 2022, came his scorching 30-minute-long album, Mr Money With The Vibe. It’s an engrossing potpourri of music styles, voices and attitudes that reveal a breadth of ambition that music lovers have not seen in a long time. His rise to global reckoning was sealed by sold-out shows in Atlanta and London and a collaboration with Nigerian singer Tiwa Savage on the hit Loaded.

Currently signed to Afrobeats linchpin Olamide’s Empire-distributed YBNL label, which is also home to the equally talented Fireboy DML, Asake finds himself in quite impressive company. Olamide himself is pretty adept in blending the sonic elements that form the basis of Asake’s own creative template.

It seems Asake, a Lagosian, is also embracing amapiano, the South African house music subgenre taking the world by storm. Characterised by jazzy, sometimes bluesy, house grooves punctuated by frequent log drum infusions, amapiano has spread across the continent and is redefining and re-energising popular dance music. Asake is adding his own distinctive chameleonic qualities to it.

His sweeping take on Afrobeats, fuji, amapiano, Lagosian street slang and the urban sounds of black America has an immediate impact as an astonishing blast of creativity.

Who is Asake?

Born Ahmed Ololade, Asake is a graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University drama department who burst into the music scene without apparent warning. Asake is actually his mother’s name. He is also a highly inventive student of Nigeria’s Yoruba language, his main medium of expression.

He uses slang fresh from the streets coupled with expressions popularised by fuji (an Islam-inflected south-west Nigeria form of popular music) and the entire Isale Eko (downtown Lagos) army of street-dwelling miscreants. Asake brazenly embraces urban “hood” culture and its seductive promise of social rebellion. Yet at the same time, he is not the kind of guy moms loathe because he’s also endowed with a winning comic gift and a bad-boy-on-the-mend sort of aura.

Nigerian megastar Burna Boy was quick to partner on a remix of Asake’s Afrobeats-cum-amapiano track Sungba, but didn’t bring anything new to the table apart from his certified hit-making status and brooding sense of menace. Asake, on the other hand, is a live wire linguistic conduit, spicing up Yoruba street lingo with the dexterity of a street urchin, complete with witty banter and double meanings.

Is his debut album any good?

Songs such as Peace Be Unto You, Terminator and Joha only lavishly build on the eruptive momentum of Organise, the opening track of Mr Money With The Vibe. The album’s blistering pace is one of its most distinctive features, followed by its seamless splicing (editing). Pace and sequencing are the key elements of this exquisite piece of sonic art.

Building from this is Asake’s mastery of a rich range of music styles, from amapiano and Afrobeats to R&B, hip-hop and Jamaican dub. He burns through these illustrious music archives at great speed and, surprisingly, with some depth. He’s able to convert gospel-sounding ditties into profane and rabble-rousing secular anthems. This ability is one of the secrets of the album’s somewhat unexpected artistic success.

Most of Asake’s videos of the album are shot by TG Omori, the intriguingly auteurish cinematographer and leading West African music video director. They try to capture the frenetic pace and layering of the songs. The scenes are eclectic and quirky by turns. Joha appears shot in the arid expanses of Arizona or some such place. Peace Be Unto You sweeps up Lagos’s sprawling urban chaos and intensity. Terminator offers a slow-burning account of simmering foreboding, sassiness and sexual gratification. Through it all, Asake adopts a broad selection of personas and roles.

Beyond amapiano

When South African amapiano stars such as DBN Gogo and Major League DJz heard Mr. Money With The Vibe, they expressed their awe and admiration. Major League DJz tweeted that “Asake is amapiano”. DBN Gogo went as far as to say the album was so good that South African amapiano musicians had to come together to fend off the formidable Nigerian challenge. Obviously, she’s at a loss regarding Asake’s diversity of cultural and musical inspirations.

Indeed, Asake can be difficult to categorise. He gleefully avails himself of cultural resources and archives with confidence, panache and skill.

Asake’s free-wheeling sonic eclecticism might be the key to his meteoric success. Joyous choral singing, ebullient fuji trimmings, repurposed iconic R&B grooves, street patois, good-natured urban hooliganism, immediacy and openness also need to be added into the already intriguing mix. Surely, this is all beyond ordinary amapiano. And that makes it all the more appealing.

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