The underground of the music world is a dark hole lawless reality where battles are fought with unseen forces. Here, those who make it out to the light are not victors, they are survivors.
In Nigeria, it’s worse because certain infrastructures are not in place for even survivors to successfully break out without a pool of financial resources and miles of interconnected industry relationships. This is why the come-up story of people like Adekunle Gold will always be important to the Nigerian audience. Because he reinforces the common man’s hope in a system designed by default to make him fail.
A combination of actual talent, dedication and sheer luck has paved Adekunle Gold’s path to this Gold album. But instead of distancing himself from the gloomy place he has come, he introduces his album singing “Call me Gold/Cos I am Golden” on the album Intro; a mosh-pit of emotions coming from a voice who has been waiting for this exact moment all his life. Through this, Adekunle takes listeners through over-familiar tropes of battle against odds for love, life and aspirations in the jungle of the world.
If there’s anything Adekunle Gold wants Gold to be remembered for, it’s that this is the story of me and you.
In the most rudimentary sense, Adekunle Gold understands what a concept album is, and wants to make one. This is probably why his album was released with a gold-themed cover art with a tied-in album booklet of short poems by Gbemi Ero-Phillips and art by Aniete Brendan.
— BUY GOLD ALBUM NOW (@adekunleGOLD) July 30, 2016
But Gold, the eponymous album opener throws us off immediately. It is a slow piano ballad, in the vein of his Sade cover and while a decent song isn’t a particularly good use of Adekunle’s talents. Plus it reeks strongly of Simi, our reigning neo-Afropop queen and one of Adekunle Gold’s long time collaborators. Her influence is obvious in the string of torch songs that randomly inserted into the album which have surprisingly given Adekunle Gold his biggest hits. Orente was the follow up single his debut Sade, and Nurse Alabere is a guitar-heavy ballad that shows that good story will trump snazzy reverbs and studio cooked beats.
Adekunle Gold was always touted by Olamide’s YBNL as the alternative sound to its highly successfully but formulaic street rap formula and Gold leans heavily into this niche. He borrows arrangements and compositions from the highlife and fuji greats of the 80’s. The Gangan provides a deep throaty belly to My Life, which would sit right at home in a King Sunny Ade album. This formula is a motif that repeats itself through the album, the retinue of instruments changing just enough to make each song slightly different, driven by deft guitar work, relentless percussions and layered backing tracks on Beautiful Night, Friend Zone, Pick Up, Temptation, Fight For You, Ready, Sweet Me and No Forget.
He tries to switch things up with some softcore R&B on Paradise, pays homage to Fela and Brymo in Work with its triumphant trumpeting and thanks to Simi’s sleek backup vocals, also not so subtly lends from old Bollywood on Ariwo Ko. While these songs are the most adventurous Gold gets, he doesn’t quite marry both worlds the way we’ve seen acts like Johnny Drille pull off with ease. As a result, they come off as failed gimmicks instead of an artist expanding his range.
Like many Nigerian musicians, Adekunle Gold fails to realise that full-length albums are opportunities for sonic and thematic experimentation. Despite lush production boosted by mixing mostly manned by Simi, his storytelling is painfully restricted to tired—singleness, marriage, relationship and hustle tropes often driven by social media chatter.
There is no evidence of an effort to find universal themes with vertical drops void of misguided references only a bracket of internet-savvy Nigerian millennials will understand. This paucity of imagination also cripples his sound; his delivery is flat and derivative, he trots out his formula with no regard for genre and nuance, be it a guitar driven torch song, a piano power ballad, a ‘futuristic’ Afrobeat twerk song or a fuji throwback.
Because of how he came into the limelight (the original Sade was a fuji-fied cover of a One Direction song), Gold should have been the stage on which Adekunle Gold defied our assumptions of his potential. What we get instead is an album that will find longevity as a set list for Owambe cover bands across the country.
It might not be the most desirable way to attain immortality, but it’s better than nothing.
Listening Ear Credits: Samira Bello, Toye and Edwin Okolo