Paris-born Nigerian singer Aṣa’s fifth studio album, ‘V’, is already being labelled a classic. Some pundits may find this an early call but a cohort of music critics – and a teeming listening audience – have returned a favourable verdict.
This becomes important when we revisit Aṣa’s discography. For context, V arrives barely three years after her fourth album, Lucid which received mixed reception. The Covid-19 pandemic and its consequent global lockdown disrupted Aṣa’s 2020 tour schedule, inadvertently providing time and material, two invaluable resources, required to conceive and make new music. Released in February 2022, the famed month of love, the album title, V, is unique in Aṣa’s discography as the first with a single letter, the 22nd alphabet in modern English.
V is for Virus
“V is about happiness, love, friendship and lots of Joy,” Aṣa is quoted verbatim on the liner notes accompanying the album on Apple music—and this description is accurate. V brings a sustained warmth to Aṣa’s discography and, perhaps, to a ravaged world seeking to co-exist with the Covid-19 disease and its unrelenting multifaceted impact.
V is also about viruses and the way humanity confronts them with valour. Aṣa may not have mentioned celebration but this album is indeed celebratory in the way it reflects on every aspect of human resilience . Melancholia, disquiet, and unease are powerful muses Aṣa draws on for her music but these tendencies seem to take the backseat on V.
Renowned for her eclectic influences sweeping across music genres and traditions, Aṣa’s latest material is a tribute to an unlikely genre—afrobeats! Yes, Aṣa co-opts this trendy genre out of West Africa, strictly for her own uses. Those familiar with Aṣa’s infrequent press appearances may not be surprised.
Two years ago, Aṣa jovially declared her admiration for the Peckham-raised afrobeats artiste Naira Marley. She described herself as a “Marlian” (which is the designated name for Naira Marley’s teeming fan base) on a radio interview at the Lagos seaside Cool FM. Beyond acknowledging the popularity of the quick-paced, dance music that is afrobeats, Aṣa endorses it in the best way possible: she pays tribute to the genre inside the studio booth. This must come naturally since genre blending is cardinal to her practice.
V is for Velocity
Released three months apart, ‘Mayana’ and ‘Ocean’, the first two singles supporting her new album, puzzled the majority of Aṣa’s home-based fans. Coming behind her aesthetically safe Lucid, these singles were warning shots as they exist outside Aṣa’s erstwhile sphere of influences. Making these two rather extreme songs early singles is a masterful artist & repertoire decision as the rest of the album, tamer in its interpretation of afrobeats, conforms with her shtick.
It has been 15 years since Aṣa released her self-titled debut album. Produced by Cobhams Asuquo, Aṣa was that phenomenal album introducing a rare talent working across the multiple genres of soul, rhythm & blues and folk. The best part is Aṣa kept a bit of herself in the product, inhabiting her songs with her tonal Yoruba language and its vast worldview. Call Aṣa a voyeur who recants in Yoruba and you may be right. But she has since gone over and beyond this, expanding her worldview to accommodate experiences from travels and lived experience.
Born Bukola Elemide in Paris and raised in Lagos in a middle-class family, Aṣa attended boarding secondary school in Jos. Her rebellion against the typical Nigerian white-collar dream began when she dropped out of college, diverting her tuition fees to purchase her first guitar. Since acquiring that guitar, music became her constant companion, taking her away from Lagos back to Paris and to far-flung countries around the world where she has toured and performed her music.
V is for Return
Following the Covid-19 lockdown, Aṣa relocated briefly to Lagos, where she recorded V. P.Priime, her go-to producer, is a 21-year old wunderkind with a resume of certified hits for artistes like Olamide, Fireboy DML, Teni, Zlatan, Oladapo and Ric Hassani. An alumnus of the prestigious Sarz Academy, P.Priime is one of the most decorated afrobeats producer in recent history and perhaps the most hard-working. He produces about 90 percent of the 31 minute long, 10-track album. In a sense, he is what the veteran producer Cobham Asuquo was to Aṣa’s first album.
Collaboration is the unwritten rule in afrobeats and Aṣa acts accordingly, V is the first Aṣa album with featured acts. As always, her collaborative choices were carefully curated with a leaning towards artistes working in the genre-blending middle-ground of the mainstream and alternative spaces.
Wizkid is the exception, of course. Unarguably the biggest star of his cohort, Wizkid’s practice pushes the frontier of afrobeats, most especially with his fourth LP album, Made in Lagos, a risk that is successful in its ageless quality and replay value.
Expectedly their song ‘IDG’ captures that insouciant afrobeats mood. Updated with Aṣa’s scatting and Wizkid’s tenor of legendary melodies, it is suffused with an infectious joy that demands dance. This ditty is an early but iconic moment of sublime genre-blending, with Aṣa unabashedly basking in the floodlights of the mainstream – and it looks good on her. The other decidedly afrobeats moment is the shaku-shaku dance-demanding ‘Love me Or Give Me Red Wine’. Although Aṣa is by herself, P.Priime is in fine form outside the studio booth.
‘Good Times’ features highlife duo/sibling group The Cavemen, who bring a capella rhythms reminiscent of the awarding-winning South African band Black Lady Mabazo to an ageless song about friendship. It is a spare song about love, camaraderie and resilience, the type that people draw from each other. This is an important song in the light of the pandemic.
Fast-rising chanteuse, Amarae assists on the jaunty trap-inflected ‘All I Ever Wanted’, a song oddly about regret as much as it is about dumping deadweight lovers.
V is for Atmosphere
Beyond its infectious joy and unbridled optimism, this album carries an atmospheric feel about it. This is not surprising as Aṣa remarked that she wrote most of these songs close to the ocean.
V is similar to most Aṣa albums as it is about love and its many iterations. Heartbreaks, faltering affection and cheating lovers are tackled headlong, but what is different is a positive outlook replacing haunting melancholia. A lot can also be said about the album’s agility and warmth, which brings a transformative texture to Asa’s rather dark discography.
Before V, Aṣa’s best attempt at an upbeat outlook was on her sophomore album, Beautiful Imperfection. ‘Nike’ may be about lothario branded in Nike, but his rejected partner’s resignation holds some stoicism.
Expectedly love, the good kind, also features. ‘Show Me Off’ smothers with warm affection, as does the sultry ‘Morning Man’ about rising in the morning with the sun shining on your lover. Beyond the positive look on life, living and love, V, like most Aṣa albums, is shorn of political messages and leanings. The song persona remains the agent of influence whose capacity for self-actualization has never been more assured.
Asa’s V might be her own “Made in Lagos”: made with joy, love and warmth.