Wizkid at 30: How Good was his debut Superstar?

In celebration of Wizkid’s birthday today, I reproduce my review of Superstar, as written almost a decade ago. I weighed Wizkid’s debut against Bez’s debut Supersun. As you can see, even ten years ago, it seemed clear that Wizkid would sell a trailer-load of copies. It’s also clear that his songwriting has always needed some polish…

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Listening to Nigerian music these days; something is glaring or rather the lack of something is obvious. Where are the regular guys? The broke blokes? If we are to believe the news, Nigerians are getting poorer, a significant percentage of the youth are unemployed. But somehow this malignancy has escaped today’s musicians.

It wasn’t always like this. We had Fela in the 70s, who while not quite as indigent as his audience, was conscious enough to speak their plight in his music. By the 1990s, Fela’s political activism had given way to social consciousness as young men from the ghetto (especially Ajegunle) entered and dominated music. Daddy Showkey, Daddy Fresh, Baba Fryo sang of their plight and thus reflected the condition of average Nigerian.

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By the 2000s, these musicians were eased out mainly due to low sales and the new boys quickly took over. These new boys brought superiority into the budding industry-these artists were smarter than the previous crop and became richer. Nothing succeeds as success and soon artists in faraway lands with artistic ambitions came back and the new order developed deep roots.

Unfortunately, this superiority carried over to the music and soon they were better than the majority of Nigerians. They had more money, more education and more talent. Naturally, vanity became a theme. A song is incomplete if the artist doesn’t chant their name, back when Daddy Showkey sang, “welcome Daddy Showkey, Welcome”, it was an introduction and an assertion of a self that had been hidden under a layer of poverty and obscurity. These days it is a boast and a reminder that I did this.

Music from the 1990s excluded the rich who didn’t see the need for such assertion when a fat wallet was sufficient, besides wealthy families considered their offspring beyond an industry that had touts and ‘ne’er do wells’ as poster boys. Not anymore though, in contemporary music a display of wealth is necessary, even previously regular guys like Timaya now have to brag about their possessions.

Recently, Soundcity’s Top 10 had only one ‘regular’ guy, Oritshe Femi. And even he had flashy clothes in contrast with the setting of the video. The message is, I am from here but I am not like them. Enraptured by the spectacle, viewers lap it up ignoring the message same way listeners dance to the beat ignoring the lyrics.

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The present structure opened the gates for a young man with musical ambitions to thrive, especially taken under the wings of one of the successful musicians of the period. A young man who could never have survived the tortuous terrain of the 90s, but things have been made easy for Wizkid to own a significant portion of the pop music market.

In his debut album he begins with a song with a vanity title, Say My Name. “Everywhere I go…everybody say my name, Wizzy!” His life has changed he says. He might as well say he is no more one of the regular guys.

By the second track, No Lele, he tries to identify with the public when he says, “them no know how this young boy from the ghetto make am”. Someone from Ajegunle is probably asking, which ghetto? A pertinent question when in the next track, Scatter the Floor, he says to a lady: “let’s negotiate…don’t hesitate let’s go to my estate”. How many people from the ghetto have estates? How many can muster the cash-enhanced charm in the man’s voice?

The themes don’t change much, the early tracks tout the concerns of the album which really are the concerns of a rich teenager: girls, clubbing, wooing women and spending money on women. To his credit, he sings with an easy flow on beats produced mainly by the previously underused Samklef. The conventional pop album is more concerned with wants than needs, sex than love, dancing than thought, melody above sense and Superstar doesn’t rise above these concerns and not unintentionally as it is easy to see that it is a package for clubs and for arenas. In short, Super Star is a compilation of singles.

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But the inclusion of the somewhat sober Oluwa Lo Ni shows unease with the track list so that the song is the weakness in an album that really should embrace its mindlessness and preoccupation with fun. Placing it in the middle of the album is another drawback for as Tuface has already shown, for albums like this, the self-obligatory near Gospel song should come at the end of the album- an LP equivalent of Nollywood’s To God be the Glory.

There are other weaknesses, most noticeably song writing. The artist is evidently more comfortable freestyling than taking time to pen lyrics. He’d rather sing sugary nothings than craft a memorable line. The album probably has just a memorable line and he says it twice on two different tracks: “my money and their money no be mate”.

For all the spewing of mindless fun, the melody thins out halfway into the album, the latter half not living up to the promise of the earlier tracks and has to depend on the suspicious placing of the very popular Holla At Your Boy toward the end. This marks out the album as one of two halves and robs it of cohesion. A quality another debut has plentifully.

Bez’s Super Sun is one cohesive package of music without a single strand sticking out or depressed. From talking galactic-sized ambition on the eponymous track, to wooing new women or wanting old ones, to urging listeners to put their heart in their endeavours, to dismissing love as overrated, he delivers an outstanding if unusual palette of songs.

To be sure, Bez too has women on his mind but music on Super Sun covers a different spectrum from Super Star- if true love is alive, breathing and can be found in today’s music, Bez produces the oxygen and if it is flailing in despair soon to drown, his music is the closest to the resuscitation it will get. Just listen as he paints an innocently romantic picture on Say: “Jellybean, let’s be like we were 17, having dreams like sandcastles in Brazil…” An expensive dream to be sure but sung sincerely. Even when on Stop Pretending he mentions the names of several women, it is easy to believe that he can love them all fully and equally which amidst all the ass shaking and winding is a rare quality in contemporary music.

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Ordinarily, music on Super Sun should be alienating as the sound is entirely different from what obtains in the country but there are cues in his music that rein the subtle excesses in. For example, when he mentions the popular free night call package from MTN, Extra cool, he succeeds in capturing more about Nigerian youthful love than a thousand slangs from a thousand songs from other artistes.

Bez overindulges often: a needless change in melody in the delightfully dismissive Over You, some lines feel forced- the psychology, biology, chemistry line in Stop Pretending, even the album title for instance- but the music carries the songs home. The man plays the guitar, has a band so his music would be perfect for live performances- a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by the producer as a couple of songs receive a live performance incarnation on the album though the applause does seem contrived.

The producer is Cobhams who has taken the vision he had on Asa’s debut, honed it and has made it manifest in broad yet subtle strokes here. Several things seem to be happening on the album as a whole and on individual tracks, most of these things taking place beneath the surface: from the violins and electric bell sounds of the opening track to the lush strings of Stop Pretending, to the abrupt percussion on …The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, to the quasi-whistling on Super Sun to the slight country sound on Technically, this is Cobhams harnessing what he had dispelled in previous works.

From the general to the particular, he has taken the subtle composition from Asa’s debut, the pop sensitivity from Darey’s Undareyted and the whistling from Girl on a Plane a great but criminally overlooked song from Faze’s Independent.

Added to these is the mastery of the mix on the remix to the title track featuring pleasing verses from three rappers (elDee especially keen to remind the public that before his present phase of assisted singing he was a rapper of immense talent, Chocolate City’s Ice Prince delivers as usual and surprise addition Eva reduces her Nicki Minaj influence to drop what is sure to be her best lines so far.)

Still, Bez is not the 1990s musician of the noughties, he can’t be. His audience has been cut out for him already. At least he doesn’t pretend like he is (the last song on the album dismisses the common childhood rhymes of the average Nigerian as stupid even as he renders the nursery rhymes of richer kids more reverentially, a less elitist artist would recognize that while those songs are not packed with meaning, they are still far from stupid).

His album jacket suggests he had elite education, his voice doesn’t have the accent or grit of the longsuffering Nigerian and his music is too smooth to be visceral but his themes are personal and by speaking for one man, one man in love, one man in the throes of lust for a stranger, one man contemplating the ways of the world he succeeds in speaking for all of us even if it’s in a language a majority of Nigerians won’t understand for as Clint Eastwood has said, “Emotions don’t need translation”. Pity then, that most won’t get to listen to his music- they would be too busy dancing to other artistes display cash and conquests.

Bez would definitely not sell out and his songs would not receive massive airplay. He can blame his genre or the audience, but in a clime where those with the credentials for singing conscious music are distracted by the concept of ‘swagger’ and fail to craft socially relevant songs, he can console himself that he has come good.

Thus, the new era has raised two artistes, who would have been defeated by the rough nature of the path to music stardom in the 90s, to prominence but while they both have super galactic aims, one succumbs to the new order and thrives on it, the other seeks to redefine it and possibly transcend it. However, listeners would recognize that neither artiste really reflects their circumstance. May the better artiste sell more units?

Don’t count on it.

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