In praise of perfect songs: On Asa, Burna Boy and Davolee

In Nigeria, when we say a song is good, we are often referencing its ability to make us dance. This is a long-established truth that’s been highlighted by many critics. If all you listen to are Nigerian pop songs, you’ll be forgiven for assuming we’re a nation of perpetually gay people. Thank god we’re far removed from that time we were crowned the world’s happiest people, so it’s okay to admit that we are a country of often-sad, regularly-depressed people. Yet, we’re quick to dance, creating a new style every year for our restless feet. Beyond dance, however, there’s a wide range of what can be called good Nigerian music.

Consider, for instance, the men on Pulse Nigeria’s Loose Talk Podcast, who can be trusted to create an impromptu hip-hop list almost every quarter—best artists, classic albums, top ten songs, etc. Their lists are according to the taste of the participants of the podcast, based on their vast knowledge of the Nigerian hip-hop canon. This has nothing to do with either the artists or their fans. And usually, there’s some objective basis for their judgment, which is always absent dance.

“Critics are, themselves, creators of art,” writes Alissa Wilkinson, a film critic at Vox, in defence of criticism. “It’s an art that’s usually funnelled through the medium of journalism, but criticism is still fundamentally an art form.” The existence and value of critics is often a matter for debate in Nigeria. Yet, there are writers who, consistently, produce works of art in response to Nigerian music. Critics, by virtue of their congenital need to question everything, seldom agree about what is good. Sometimes critics do agree, and the critical response to Adekunle Gold’s album is an illustration of what happens when this happens. Dami Ajayi, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo and Wilfred Okiche have similar opinions of the beloved artist’s sophomore album, yet they have come to it via different routes.

In all but the most cynical critics, there’s a desire to see good in art. Of course there are good songs that can be faulted if the critic is pedantic enough. But even with these, glowing praise is replaced with grumbling acknowledgement. Simi’s ‘Joromi’, Niniola’s ‘Maradona’, Omawumi’s ‘If You Ask Me’ Reminisce’s ‘Ponmile’, Show Dem Camp’s ‘Feel Alright’, Adekunle Gold’s ‘My Life’, Olamide’s ‘Wo’ and Bemyoda’s ‘Shima Yam’ fall in this class. Almost perfect, but not quite.  But there are songs that don’t care for the critic’s state. Songs so good they overcome whatever prejudice the listener brings. Examples of this abound in contemporary Nigerian music: Lagbaja’s ‘Never Far Away’, Modenine’s ‘Cry’, MI’s ‘Safe’, 2Baba’s entire first album, etc.

In writing about music, I often sound like a sceptic, so I’ve recently thought about songs that are perfect to my ears, that make me sound like a complete fanboy. And I’ve attempted to transfer that rare enthusiasm to words, to examine the work of three unique contemporary artists at different stages of their career.

Burna Boy — ‘Ye’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’

In the aftermath of Kanye West’s latest album release, which seemed destined for an unfortunate fate in the wake of his comments on slavery, and in a stroke of serendipity, the world woke up to what has been long suspected by many connoisseurs of contemporary Nigerian music: Burna Boy is a genius. Genius is often used too quickly for men of minor brilliance and importance, especially when they have a rebellious streak, and Burna fits this to a T. Yet, to listen to the self-described afro-fusionist mix different musical styles into his work “without making mud” like Claire Lobenfeld writes in Pitchfork  and body them like a competent lyricist on 16s is to admit that even if he’s not a genius, he’s ridiculously brilliant.

The song that brought the world to Burna’s yard was ‘Ye’ from his album Outside. That title, which he shares with West’s album, is indicative of an anguish peculiar to young Nigerians, like the cry of a man whose body is on fire, which is why some have said it should be made a national anthem, if not the anthem. The masterstroke of ‘Ye’ is how Burna Boy adapts Fela’s ‘Sorror, Tears and Blood’: “I no wan pai, I no wan die, I now wan peme, I wan enjoy, I wan chop life, I wan buy moto, I wan build house, I still wan turn up.” It’s a chant that is simultaneously accusatory and empathetic. Fela scholars like Kayode Faniyi may protest this, but I think it’s a little ironic that in Burna’s voice, the anguish you wanted to be evident in Fela’s song when he recorded it after that tragedy—the man turned to serious anger instead—is here in all its apparent vulnerability.

If you’re one of the people who stumbled on ‘Ye’ because of Kanye, I can only hope you were generous enough to listen to the whole album, or at least go one track up to ‘Heaven’s Gate’. Everything about this song screams “put me on a loop”. The dancehall beat, the lines weaved around the beat—moving with it in the first verse, falling behind it in the second, running away from it in the third till it becomes entirely unnecessary to keep the beat—the simple snare roll that fades away at the end. Here, accompanied by Lily Allen, is all that makes Damini Ogulu so good.

‘Heaven’s Gate’ is an entire brag delivered in ragga about what he’s about to do to his adversaries—not beyond imagination for those familiar with Burna Boy’s antics—that even pacifists won’t protest. In the third verse, Burna Boy is at the negotiation stage of his rant, just before he makes his promise of violence an inevitability: “Telling you, telling you, telling you, telling you/ Heaven and I aint lie, they daily dah, we merely uh/ Heaven I say Burna ranking, him stand nuh regular/ Dis ah rasswire, dem boy they nuh ready for/ Brr-rring, call pon mi cellular….” That last bit is sung by Allen in a roll of the tongue, and a line delivered in harmony sans melody. It’s almost like he brought her into the song just to deliver that riff. It’s flimsy, tiny, but the kind of thing that makes my spine tingle every time. Every time.

Davolee — ‘Festival Bar’

I came to this song through a tale of two critics. Oris Aigbokhaevbolo said he was at an event accompanied by his friend and fellow critic Osareme Edeogbon when Davolee performed the song and was joined by the crowd who knew it like an anthem. It’s tough to describe what makes ‘Festival Bar’ perfect to an audience that isn’t versed in Yoruba, but permit me to be hyperbolic: it is like Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ delivered with Olamide’s swagger. I can explain.

‘Festival Bar’ is a story about the rapper’s life while working in the eponymous bar in Ikotun, Lagos. This kind of narrative rap isn’t entirely new in Nigeria, but what makes Davolee unique is that every bar in ‘Festival Bar’ is part of the song. Line after line rhymes perfectly, yet nowhere does he feel it necessary to insert a filler. The rhymes aren’t just lazy end rhymes too. There are multiple internal rhymes, and he uses some punchlines as setup for other punchlines. But perhaps the most impressive part of this song is that it’s a perfect short story.

The story is part confessional, part lament. Characters are introduced, described and the setting is detailed enough for the listener to trace the real-life location—it does exist. The story proceeds and conflict is created. That conflict becomes a source of transformation for the protagonist, who goes from docile worker to one who fights for himself against a boss who wants to take advantage of him. The story also has its fair dose of humour—even the best Nigerian short story writers stuggle with this. In this world where Bob Dylan is a Nobel prize winner (nay), and Kendrick Lamar a Pulitzer prize winner (yay), perhaps Davolee should submit his song for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Asa — ‘Eyo’

It seems everything I can say about Asa’s Eyo I already said in an essay about the artist where I devoted almost 400 words to the song. Yet, this song that has made me a member of /r/frisson still stumps me while searching for why it’s so good, so perfect. The easy ones can be reeled off quickly: nostalgia, interiority, melancholy. So, I’m now reaching for less obvious reasons.

Here are the results of my personal research: the song moves at about 84 BPM. According to Google, a resting heart rate of between 60 to 80 BPM is good for me, so the song is close to my heartbeat when I’m in good health. The chords in ‘Eyo’ can be approximated with a I VI IV V progression, which is one of the most popular piano progressions. Music nerds will of course know that fourth chord in Eyo isn’t a V at all. It’s a chameleoning chord that changes every time it is struck. Perhaps it is minor changes like this that have made the song an earworm—Christmas songs are said to have a secret chord that makes them great too—but I like to think I’m enough of a music nerd to know when piano chords are playing on my emotions. PS: I’m not.

Now that you made it through that tunnel of geeky dross, here is what makes Eyo so good: the little things. Nearly every element of the song is a play on something familiar. The Eyo song is an old King Wasiu Ayinde Marshall tune that she makes new, not through drastic changes but by splicing its generic mood with the specifics of her nomadic life. The chord is simple, yet to pay attention to it is to realise it’s anything but. And when she sings, “Taxis waiting down on the streets so / Hurry up I have to go / Looking round you see all the people / Making faces very cold,” she’s describing an event so banal it could be any of us, yet so laden with emotion. There are definitely more technically astute and critically acclaimed Asa songs, but in Eyo is a perfection that is rare, that I cherish.