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By Noah Cebuliak
“Afrobeats” is pop music originating in West Africa, where currently, the scene is being driven primarily by artists from Nigeria and Ghana. In Nigeria, this music is infused with a culture of youthful excitement and resistance, as well as a sense of positive national pride — all of which can be summed up succinctly by the term “Naija.” Naija is local slang, but in recent years, has gained a certain pop-culture swagger, and it’s now more than ever associated with this music culture that is blowing up all over the African continent and beyond.
Yes, Afrobeats is different from Fela Kuti’s influential and politically-infused style of Afrobeat, although its origins certainly reference the rhythmic foundations Kuti was laying down some 40 years ago. This new fusion of dancehall, neo-R&B, and smooth hip-hop production is… uniquely African, although North American listeners will feel immediately at home in the Afro-Caribbean vibes emanating from some of these deep electronic beats.
But whatever you do, don’t call it a genre. African listeners are quick to point out that Afrobeats is more like “a vibe.” For Nigerians, there’s no real definition of the term Afrobeats, but they know it immediately when they hear it. It brings West Africans and their culture together wherever they are in the world.
And it had me hooked from the first tune I heard. The songwriting is simply spectacular. The beats are twerkable. And it’s just so darn catchy. Today’s top-charting Afrobeats bangers have all the soul, the swagger, and the sensuousness of any Billboard Top 40 hit you’ll hear over commercial radio waves. If you’ve never heard this music before, you’re in for a treat.
Warning: You may find yourself dancing indiscriminately. Oh yeah, and one more thing. Get ready for more auto-tune than even T-Pain can handle.
1. Mavins — “Adaobi” ft. Don Jazzy, Reekado Banks, Di’ja & Korede Bello
Led by brilliant Nigerian songwriter and beat producer Don Jazzy, this crew from Mavin Records put out this absolute banger a few years back, but it’s still my go-to tune when I want a dose of that classic Afrobeats sound. Beautiful video too. Do you think the “formula” they’re looking for in the lyrics has something to do with Wakanda’s secret vibranium?
2. D’Prince — “Gucci Gang” ft. Davido & Don Jazzy
The video is absurd, the lyrics are ridiculous, yet this is an ear worm if there ever was one. It’ll be stuck in your head after one listen. I’m not sure there’s any actual reference to the Lil Pump hit of the same name. Besides the repetitive lyrical chorus, the similarities stop there… I think I like this one better.
3. Reekado Banks — “Killah Whyna” ft. Patoranking
I tried to look up what a “whyna” could be, but it’s one of the many street terms found in the Afrobeats linguistic syntax that make this music both confounding and intriguing — a.k.a., righteous. I’m pretty sure it’s about a lady though. Reekado Banks is also in the Mavin Records family out of Nigeria, and has reached up to No. 10 on Billboard World Music Charts.
4. Sean Tizzle — “Dide” ft. Davido
My favorite thing about listening to these Afrobeats jams is that it so often sounds like the recording of live vocals and instruments was done on a $50 microphone in a home studio somewhere. Of course, the auto-tune covers a lot of that up pretty well. But take this tune, for example, the vocals are distorting likely from a hot pass through compression. But it doesn’t matter, they pull it off. And again, whatever “dide” means, I’m sold.
5. WizKid — “Naughty Ride” ft. Major Lazer
Yup, you read that right… Major Lazer’s on this rising star’s track. WizKid is Lagos’ international sensation at the moment, a classic rags-to-riches story. At 27, he’s already collaborated with Drake, and, if not for some unfortunate travel obstacles, would’ve been one of this year’s headliners at Coachella. I wanted to feature one of his lesser known songs, with auto-tune in full effect, as expected.
6. Seyi Shay — “Weekend Vibes”
Semi Shay is yet another Nigerian artist, but one of the few on this list not associated with Mavin Records. Her ex-group, From Above, was briefly signed to Columbia Records, and since she’s turned solo, she’s moved her contract to Island Records (managed by Universal). You can tell by listening to the slightly heightened fidelity on her production, that this was mixed in a professional studio, but she stands out musically as well. Doesn’t this track sound almost Brazilian? This tune always reminds me of drifting off on a piña colada dream, on a far away beach…
7. PSquare — “Shekini”
Identical twins Peter and Paul Okoye are Nigerian power duo PSquare. From humble roots, they now live in side-by-side mansions. This track is a ruthless dance floor killer! And don’t think for a second you’re not going to see two young twin brothers dancing in front a party of hundreds of adults!
8. Burna Boy — “Rock Your Body”
Here’s one of Burna Boy’s more recent cuts. There was a time that he went through a bit of a Drake-influence period. His 2018 track with Lily Allen shows just how much this music is starting to seriously take over international audiences and scenes. Anyway, “Rock Your Body” is a slow shuffle, track 8 on our little mixtape merits that slight rallentando — if you will.
9. Runtown — “Mad Over You”
This was the first Afrobeats tune I ever heard. The music is emotive, the mixing leaves something to be desired, but that’s part of the fun. “Mad Over You” is a sultry, sensual song, full of longing, and this video captures all the beautiful color and fashion in Nigeria right now.
10. Castro — “Odo Pa” ft. Baby Jet & Kofi Kinaata
Castro is a Ghanaian artist who passed away under mysterious circumstances in 2014. He left behind a legacy of absolutely crazy tunes, such as this one, which features a killer electronic piano solo and vocals drowning in, you guessed it… auto-tune.
11. Minz — “Odoyewu”
I was going to stop at a cool ten for this list, but then I saw the new video for Minz’s “Odoyewu.” Watch this video for the amazing choreography. I hesitate to even call it “choreography” since it’s largely showing street dancing and local individuals’ dance moves, but nonetheless, really entertaining stuff!
Here’s a Spotify playlist containing all of the above tracks, but I’ve also made another personal Naija Pop playlist (below) for those who want to dig deeper, and groove longer!
Keep on Grooving…
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