There are more vacuums in Lola Rae’s discography than she admits as an unapologetically self-styled Nigerian pop singer with British-Ghanaian origins. In the last few years, she merely surfaces to float new material before going back under for another extended stretch of silence. As with many Indie artists, her long time career plans may not seem evident yet, but despite Rae’s one-single-per-blue-moon release format she has artistically slinked into a primadonna class only a few women have attained in Nigeria.
One Time, her first single of 2016 is seven months late into the year but Lola Rae comes just in time to coast on the global rise of Caribbean-inspired sounds. The idea is pretty simple and probably too familiar; heavy bass thumps, reggae guitars and samples for backup vocals all set for your regular sweaty Caribbean basement jam. Only here, Lola Rae solves a dilemma many Nigerian artists seeking West Indian inspirations have struggled with by sticking with English indented with Nigerian pidgin instead of horribly cross-mouthing the Jamaican patois as many have done (yes, we’re looking at you Cynthia Morgan).
Rae shows a songwriting strong suit here that is ambitious without taking itself too seriously. “This is for you and me/if you like what you see” she sultrily sings, with an air of insouciant confidence that rings almost like a fettered command instead of an offer of self. The true magic of One Time is in Lola Rae’s alternate ‘judi’ chorus, which smoothly slips in as an encore to a near-spiritual hook about“freedom on the dancefloor”, “rude gyals who get what they want”, and “dancing in the fire”. It’s lush, braggadocious, seductive and original all at once without any conflicting core elements.
The video for Rae’s latest material fully embraces the dance hall aesthetic, marrying Ciara’s flirtations with androgyny with Rihanna’s thuggish sex appeal. Shots of unclad bodies grinding under chrome lighting and a set painted almost identical to Rihanna’s Work take most of the video’s screen time, but Lola Rae is nuanced enough to carry the weight of every scene convincingly—even when she butches up Rihanna’s chair-in-the-room scene from Pour It Up. Lola Rae wants you to know where her style has come from. But she also wants you to see that she can take it and make it her own.
Songs that have Nigerian women celebrating their femininity and sensuality have always suffered from a cultural bias in the past. Such songs and music videos are critiqued with underpinnings of societal patriarchy and misogynist industry double-standards masked as public scrutiny. The last attempt by Tiwa Savage with her “controversial” Wanted video, is still treated as a dismissible fail in the “good-girl” narrative that she has spun with her catalog. With One Time, Lola Rae treads the same path of eggshells but uses subtlety as a weapon of power without sacrificing her feminine litheness instead. When her act comes together, the result is a vignette of racy basement parties in a slummy Nigerian apartment with Caribbean colours and minimalist graffiti.
There may be no major project to look forward to from Lola Rae, but it is certain, she will be around for a while longer than most.