Ayra Starr’s Talent and Don Jazzy’s Impeccable Business

Sex, love, fun: What else is youth for? The new EP from teenage newcomer Ayra Starr covers all these topics.

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Mostly, she is revelling in it or suffering from it, in the opening track ‘Away’. but on one song ‘DITR’ (diamond in the rough), she offers commentary on what one assumes is the dangers of juvenile intoxication.

Across these songs, Ayra Starr displays an impressive level of vocal control. And if she has written the songs she sings, then it must be said that the newcomer is an astonishing talent. At 18, she has the chops of a semi-veteran. Naturally, a part of the success of what comes through on Ayra Starr’s self-titled project is due to Don Jazzy’s artistry. The man appears to have built a pipeline that ensures that talents working at the highest level are produced.

But as everybody knows the Nigerian pop space is not the most welcoming of what one might like to think of pure vocal ability or even rap technicality. There’s a reason artists like Waje, Timi Dakolo, and Ladipoe are frequently tagged underrated across social media. Personally, I think they are more unknown than underrated but the point is same: these heavily talented guys have not acquired the rewards their talents deserve.

Don Jazzy, who has signed Ladipoe and the equally unknown/underrated Johnny Drille, has tried to tackle this feature of the Nigerian market in two ways:

1. Give the relatively older acts some of his brand power

2. Modify the younger/newer acts by adding some pop music to their pure talent

The aforementioned Ladipoe and Johnny Drille are beneficiaries of the first method; they already were known to some of the Nigerian audience before getting signed to Mavin. Rema, a mostly trap/rap act before joining Don Jazzy, is the primary beneficiary of the second method. Ayra Starr is the latest product of the second method. Listening to her singing on her Instagram account is an exercise in the pleasures of a talented singer.

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Her debut EP has some of that but there is something more. Some of the songs adopt the features of the Nigeria pop track. For example, the start of ‘Away’ starts like you might expect from the artist you’ve listened to on Instagram, even as she adopts pidgin in the verse, singing about a lover who “come dey vex on top say I no want stress”.

But it is not until you get to the song’s chorus — a rousing repetitive “Away, Away, Away, Away, Ah-Ah Away ay!” — that it becomes clear that she has opened the project with a song that has been engineered to elicit chants from an audience, a famous feature of crowd-pleasing pop songs. It is as if Don Jazzy whispered to Ayra Starr: “Intimacy works for Instagram; for Nigerian pop, you need a bigger weapon”. To Ayra Starr’s credit, she is adept at wielding both intimacy and a big weapon, which on ‘Away’ is that booming chorus.

On ‘Ija’, the project’s most lusty track, the Nigerian modern pop influences are just as clear: from the lines “turn your body up and down/I really like your style/The way you move that waist is bad” to the song’s mid-tempo beat. The first few notes are even identical to the first few seconds of ‘Sweet One’ from Wizkid’s Made in Lagos album.

That Wizkid appears to be an influence for a project that is partly in the alte mould suggests that the gap between mainstream and alte are no longer as distinct as they were a few years ago. Don Jazzy’s work with Rema is one of the reasons that is the case. if he succeeds in doing that with Ayra Starr’s, the bridge he has erected between alte and mainstream would be even stronger.

The man himself appears on the project’s penultimate track ‘Sare’, a love song that will inevitably enter the Nigerian wedding playlist. With Don Jazzy in charge of production directly, this song becomes the nearest Ayra Starr comes to mainstream Nigerian pop — if only because she drops Ronaldo and Burna Boy, two immensely popular figures, back-to-back in the lyrics. That is not the only reason. The song also features a highly pleasing sample of the Lijadu Sister’s 1979 track ‘Orere Elejigbo’. Meaning ‘Sare’ is a song that would appeal to at least two generations of Nigerians. It is not a coincidence that the one place you would find both of those generations enjoying music is a wedding.

So that through Ayra Starr’s unbelievably mature talent, Don Jazzy has found yet another way to combine his business acumen and an upcoming act’s undeniable talent. And Ayra Starr is still a teenager! People say it all the time but this time it is true: We are listening to a singer that would go far. She has my attention. She should have yours as well.

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