Can WizKid Conquer The US Pop Landscape He Helped Create?
For the last few years American pop has been sounding increasingly African. As early as 2014, when The Fader broke down “pop music’s Nigerian future,” the continent’s influence has been evident here. Back then, EDM was reaching a point of maximum aggression (think “Turn Down For What”) and rap, pop, and R&B were deep in their DJ Mustard phase, marked by minimal, straightforward pops and snaps. That Fader feature explained African music’s appeal for producers who were finding themselves in a rut: “Much in the way that Timbaland shifted the sound of late ’90s R&B — breaking down hip-hop drums to their component parts, liberating the kick and snare from predictable funk break patterns — Nigeria’s new style seems set to revolutionize today’s staid templates. For popular R&B, torn between hip-hop production and EDM for nearly six years, Nigeria’s sound would seem a logical next step.”
That’s exactly what happened. In keeping with the music out of Africa and Nigeria in particular, the pop and R&B landscape has softened into a world of genre-demolishing rhythmic complexity meshed with approachable melodic impulses. This was not merely sonic exoticism or someone like Paul Simon accenting his sound with African flavors; it was a wholesale evolution in pop music borne from African musicians mingling their own traditions with the sounds of the Caribbean and the West. Despite the wild rhythmic action at play, the music feels deceptively smooth and lightweight. Like much of the best pop music, it doesn’t make a big show of its complexity.
The prevailing style is known as Afrobeats (not to be confused with Afrobeat, the also-rhythmically-complex style pioneered by Fela Kuti), and at this point its influence on Western music is unmistakable. Internationally minded DJ/producers such as Major Lazer have indeed used it as a way to ease electronic pop back toward easy listening, while on the hip-hop and R&B side Drake has more or less adopted the Afrobeats style wholesale on parts of his recent releases Views and More Life. It has taken over to the point that The New York Times recently reported, “Nigerian music — Afrobeats in particular — is having a moment. It blares in hotel lobbies, airport lounges, nightclubs and the dozens of bedroom recording studios where young men and women dream of stardom in this clogged, overheated city [Lagos, Nigeria].”
One of the foremost figures in the scene is WizKid, a 27-year-old former child singer from Lagos who received a huge worldwide boost when Drake featured him on last year’s #1 summer smash “One Dance.” Born Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun, WizKid has been a star in Africa for most of this decade, and thanks to “One Dance” he’s performed on a 12-week US #1 single. Yet he’s still far from a household name here in North America. He’s seeking to change that with Sounds From The Other Side, his first album for RCA, released last week.
The most striking thing about Sounds For The Other Side is how naturally it slides into the context of modern American pop music. WizKid and peers such as Davido and Iyanya have made such an impact on their Western peers that WizKid doesn’t really have to adapt his sound to cross over in America; America has already crossed over to his sound. The album features guest appearances from leading R&B radio fixtures including Drake, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, and Trey Songz plus production from Major Lazer, and none of them sound out of their depth. This is the context they already work in.
WizKid, too, feels right at home on the beats. He croons with vigor and ease, often through Auto-Tune and mostly about sex and romance, sometimes breaking into hip-hop cadences but largely letting his voice ease into extended syllables. His music remains infectious even through headphones in front of a laptop; put it on in a club and it could easily send the room into chaotic celebration. Potential hits abound on Sounds For The Other Side: the Drake duet “Come Closer,” certainly qualifies, but so does basically everything on the album. It’s basically impossible to hear this music and keep your body still, and the hooks are nearly as contagious as the rhythms. You practically feel the sunlight on your neck, the breeze at your back, the refreshment on your lips. I’d say the biggest problem for WizKid’s operation will be deciding which tracks to release as singles, but perhaps a more significant obstacle will be getting them into rotation at radio and in the public’s streaming queues.
Afrobeats has become an inextricable part of pop’s lingua franca, and the whopping success of reggaeton/Latin pop hit “Despacito” suggests the American market is open to songs with a more pronounced international flavor, particularly when a more familiar superstar is attached. Yet despite WizKid’s pivotal role in weaving the current fabric of the mainstream, none of his singles have charted in the US yet beyond some minor burn on the Billboard Twitter Top Tracks chart. “Come Closer” topped out at #58 in the UK. It seems none of these songs is catching on just yet, and not just with radio programmers. At this point in history we’ve seen plenty of songs race up the charts thanks to streaming dominance, but WizKid isn’t experiencing that either. That’s a shame, though it’s not entirely surprising; pop history is littered with innovators and outsiders who watched other people benefit from their work. But if any album deserves to buck that trend, it’s Sounds From The Other Side, an album that should be manna for anybody who ever vibed to “One Dance.” If American pop is going to sound distinctly African, that ought to include some music performed by actual Africans.
Jay-Z’s 4:44 debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week, extending his record for most #1 albums by a solo artist to 14. (In second place, Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand each have 11.) Billboard reports that Jay achieves his latest chart-topper with 262,000 equivalent album units, the fourth best one-week total this year (following debuts from Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Ed Sheeran), and 174,000 in traditional album sales.
Debuting at #2 is 21 Savage with 77,000 units but only 22,000 in sales for Issa Album. After Kendrick Lamar at #3, DJ Khaled at #4, Ed Sheeran at #5, and Imagine Dragons at #6, Haim’s sophomore album Something To Tell You enters at #7 with 32,000 units/26,000 sales — basically the exact same sales figure from the #6-debuting Days Are Gone. Rounding out the top 10 are Calvin Harris at #8, the Moana soundtrack at #9, and Drake at #10.
Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, the Justin Bieber-featuring remix of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” clocks in at #1 for a 10th straight week. (Song of the summer?!) Per Billboard, it’s one of only 35 songs to ever last that long at #1. At #2, DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller reaches a new peak. It’s Tiller’s highest-charting single ever. Khaled’s “I’m The One,” featuring Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne, slides to #3, followed by Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” at #4. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” remains at #5, equalling the record for most weeks in the top 5; it’s spent each of its 27 weeks on the chart in that frame. A list of the songs that lasted longest in the top 5:
27 weeks, “Shape of You,” Ed Sheeran (#1, Jan. 28, 2017)
27 weeks, “Closer,” The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey (#1, Sept. 3, 2016)
25 weeks, “Uptown Funk!,” Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars (#1, Jan. 17, 2015)
25 weeks, “How Do I Live,” LeAnn Rimes (#2, Dec. 13, 1997)
23 weeks, “The Twist,” Chubby Checker (#1, Sept. 19, 1960)
21 weeks, “Smooth,” Santana feat. Rob Thomas (#1, Oct. 23, 1999)
21 weeks, “Un-Break My Heart,” Toni Braxton (#1, Dec. 7, 1996)
Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” is at #6, while Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” is at #7. Shawn Mendes reaches a new #8 peak with “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” his third top-10 single. French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” also rises to a new peak at #9, and Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” falls to #10.
Kid Rock – “Po-Dunk” & “Greatest Show On Earth”
Whether he’s actually running for Senate or just drafting off Donald Trump’s defiant populism to jumpstart his music career, Kid Rock couldn’t pander to his base much more effectively than “Po-Dunk,” a redneck anthem for those with “a yard full of chickens and a barn full of drunks.” That song holds down Rock’s country side, while the more generic “Greatest Show On Earth” appeals to the hard rock audience that first made him famous. “Greatest Show On Earth” is less of a head-slapper, yet it’s musically atrocious and I never want to hear it again. At least “Po-Dunk” is catchy and full of memorable lyrics.
Echosmith – “Goodbye”
With the new wave throwback “Cool Kids” and the lovestruck acoustic ballad “Bright,” young family band Echosmith established themselves as one of the more fascinating outfits in the mainstream pop machine. “Goodbye” is the first single from their second album, out this fall, and it’s basically the 2017-core version of Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me” (that is, besides sounding like Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me,” it sounds liked a Selena Gomez song for zonked-out beach hangovers). I like it!
DNCE – “Good Day”
“I don’t need a fortune cookie to tell me the way I’m feeling” is corny as hell, but this short acoustic shout-along from Joe Jonas’ band fits well into the canon that also includes Mr. Big’s “To Be With You,” various One Direction songs, and Nico & Vinz’s underrated “That’s How You Know.”
Olivia O’Brien – “RIP”
O’Brien is best known for her duet with gnash, “I Hate U, I Love U.” This new single sounds like it could finally supplant that one on her CV. “RIP” has a killer hook, and its lyrical motif “RIP to the old you” seems in step with the zeitgeist.
JCY – “Thong Song” (Feat. Sisqo)
My question is not why somebody would do this but why it took somebody so long.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Beyoncé shared a photo of her newborns twins Sir Carter and Rumi. [Instagram]
- Ryan Seacrest will be back as host of the revived American Idol. [Twitter]
- Avicii teased new music — possibly a song called “Friend Of Mine” — coming very soon. [Instagram]
- Drake welcomed Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor to Toronto at their boxing press conference. [Billboard]
- In other Drake news, a fan was arrested for trespassing on his property. [TMZ]
- Fifth Harmony served some shade to former bandmate Camila Cabello in a Billboard cover story. “Let’s just say we’re in a better place now — there are no secrets in this circle,” said Dinah Jane. Cabello seemed to respond on Twitter with a shady gif, then unfollowed the group on Instagram. [Direct Lyrics]
- The Chainsmokers have threatened to release more new music this year. [Twitter]
- Pink is shooting a new music video next week. [Pink]
- Akon is buying 50% of an African music download service. [Digital Journal]
- One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson signed with Epic Records. [Twitter]
- Justin Bieber announced his North American stadium tour opening acts: Migos, Kehlani, Martin Garrix, and Vic Mensa. [MTV]
- Garrix is also the face of Armani Exchange’s Fall 2017 collection. [Your EDM]
- Britney Spears launched her 22nd (!) perfume, VIP Private Show. [People]
- Rita Ora covered Calvin Harris’ “Slide” on Elvis Duran’s show. [YouTube]
- Kesha, Big Sean, Lorde, David Guetta, Pink, Coldplay, the Weeknd, DJ Khaled, Migos, Halsey, Miley Cyrus, and Harry Styles are among the performers at the 2017 iHeartRadio Music Festival in Last Vegas this September. [iHeartRadio]
- “Despacito” has become the most streamed song of all time. [Bloomberg]
- Meanwhile, Malaysia banned “Despacito” on state radio and television due to its lyrics. [Independent]
- Charli XCX partnered with Kiehl’s for a PSA to fight against HIV. [YouTube]
- Julia Michaels’ “mini-album” Nervous System is out 7/28. [Instagram]
- Demi Lovato’s colorful new “Sorry Not Sorry” video features Jamie Foxx, Paris Hilton, and Wiz Khalifa. [Vevo]
- Ed Sheeran says he doesn’t care about all the criticism of his Game Of Thrones appearance: “why the hell would I worry what people thought about that. It’s clearly fuckin’ awesome.” [Instagram]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME