Can Wizkid Break into America Without Changing Who He Is?
The Nigerian superstar's new 'Sounds From the Other Side' project, while featuring good music, feels more scattered than any of his previous work.
Photo: Lorne Thomson/Getty Images
Wizkid has been the figurehead for America's newfound interest in West Africa's afrobeats scene for the past year and some change. Many of his new listeners caught wind of his existence when Drake's "One Dance" put a chokehold on the airwaves for the majority of 2016. His vocal role on the song is minimal—just a few sparse lines throughout the hook—but by the time "One Dance" hit, the Nigerian superstar was already the crown jewel of the African pop music world. His sophomore album Ayo was released in 2014, and it solidified him as a musical force. The album's lead single "Ojuelegba," a hypnotizing ode to his hometown, eventually got a remix with Drake and Skepta. Sprinkles of South African house added depth to the project, and US-based artists like Wale and Tyga had verses on the album. With such a strong showing and a growing global interest in his music (including a new deal with RCA), the stage has been set for Wizkid to be to afrobeats what Sean Paul was to dancehall in the early-to-mid 2000s, pushing the genre into the American mainstream.
Sounds From the Other Side is the culmination of Wizkid's rising star. The 12-track project, which Wiz is electing to call an EP, has been the subject of interviews dating back to 2015. Working out the kinks of a new American record deal is likely the reason for its repeated delays. That would explain why "African Bad Gyal," a song recorded with Chris Brown in 2014, made the cut. In a recent interview with Ebro Darden on Beats 1, Wizkid said that his choice to call SFTOS an EP was due to it being a "collaboration album," comprised of songs he'd been recording in the US over the past few years. That extended timeline of creation is evident while listening to the project, which sounds good but at times feels scattered.
Aside from the Brown-featuring "African Bad Gyal," Sounds From the Other Side hosts a few more head-scratching guest appearances. Ty Dolla $ign shows up twice, which proves to be too many times. Their first collaboration on "One For Me" is one of the project's strongest candidates for a hit single. It's a clever flip of 90s R&B trio SWV's hit "You're the One," and it shows hints of real chemistry between the two. Their second track on the EP, "Dirty Wine," isn't nearly as successful. The DJ Mustard-handled production does away with the former's smoothness and instead goes for a formulaic pop sound that feels stale at best. The closing track "Gbese" features a barely noticeable Trey Songz, begging the question as to why he's even needed in the first place. "Come Closer" is an early single that features Drake but would be just as effective without him.
The best moments on Sounds From the Other Side come in its longest stretch without any features. "Picture Perfect" is a loving serenade that, while brief in lyrical content, sticks because of Wiz's feathery harmonies on the hook; his repetition of "I can feel the wave" against beautiful marimba strums has the same infectious nature as his "I can't explain" croons did on "Ojuelegba." "Nobody," which follows, is a pursuit-of-love number that's perfectly set for the winding down moment of late night dance parties. "All For Love" incorporates the uptempo South African house that Ayo's "Show Me The Money" and "Jaiye Jaiye" did. Lead single "Daddy Yo," is the only definitive hard hitter on the project, although it might have gotten a more successful push if the feature budget had been used here instead of in throwing Trey Songz on the EP closer.
While it still has a handful of songs that perfectly showcase the range of Wizkid's vocal ability and fluidity, Sounds From the Other Side falls short at providing the depth of sound that Wiz fans have grown accustomed to hearing. The majority of songs on the project don't particularly complement each other; most are fairly downtempo and easygoing. What made Ayo such a special listening experience is that it centered Wizkid as a person and presented him as a chameleon, able to adapt to multiple musical landscapes. There were surefire dance tracks, autobiographical stories, and charming love songs. SFTOS is much more limiting on those fronts—which can be expected when a handful of mainstream acts are thrown onto music that would be much better without them. That isn't to say that there should be no room for an artist like Wizkid to experiment. His frequent collaborator Drake's More Life playlist leaned heavily on contemporary British artists. But this project feels different when considering that it's Wizkid's first proper introduction to a new market.
The challenge that Wiz faces is that, to his newfound listeners, he is the "authentic" face of a misidentified genre that North American artists have been sucking the life out of for the better half of two years. That unrealistic—and probably unfair—expectation is partly why Sounds From the Other Side isn't the ideal first date. Artists that he's been subconsciously influencing while getting his foot into the American door have already crowded our ears with breezy afrobeats derivatives while this project was being delayed, packaged, or whatever. Even French Montana's current Swae Lee-featuring smash hit "Unforgettable" was allegedly meant for Wiz, and it would have likely been this project's highlight. With that in mind, it's a tall order for SFTOS to sound special, as it has no songs that give more detail as to who he is as a person or how he's grown since his previous album, which came out three years ago. As a result, the wait for Wizkid's real proper studio release continues.
Lawrence Burney is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.