Nigerian music recently breached the top of several Billboard American charts. It announced its presence not with the big brassy beat that the Recording Academy swears is ‘World Music’, but with Essence and Love Nwantiti, two mid-tempo love songs. There are many similarities between these songs; both are woven with Naija slang that turns a simple song into a cypher that is indecipherable to the uninitiated, both require the help of a secondary party for that extra juice (vocalist for Wizkid, Remixer for CKay), and have millions of white teenage girls across Europe and in America singing along.
It makes sense, because for the first time in nearly a century, the developed world gets to finally experience what it feels like to live at the edge of existence, constantly in close proximity with one’s demise. Teaching people how to escape, even for a moment, from that brand of soul crushing despair is a uniquely Nigerian superpower, our purest manifestation of Africanfuturism. Our takeover was executed, not by frog marching America’s tweens and late stage millennials onto the dance floor, but by seducing them with sweet words and the promise of dissociation fuelled by sonic pleasure.
Africanfuturism makes sense to the African creative. For us, the future is a steep cliff that we all fear to look over because we don’t want to confirm how limited our potential timelines are. Rather than trying to scry into the future, we are focused on the here and now and squeezing every ounce of pleasure and hedonism we can manage for the brief wink in which we exist. That sense of urgency is heightened by the dysfunction of our cities and the chaos in our daily lives, the consistent sense of unease that we must constantly negotiate. We want to remember things vividly, to heighten every sensation and chase every adrenaline high to remind ourselves to live while the future is yet uncertain.
Africanfuturism as an addiction to delaying the future by heightening the present is most visualized in our music, and specifically Afrobeats. It is often misdiagnosed as a splinter of Afrofuturism, a movement that reclaims the lost histories of a black diaspora, projecting futures where they are the protagonists in high fantasies, pastorals, westerns, steampunk and space operas, genres from which they were traditionally excluded. Afrofuturism has taken over the collective interest of the film and television industry, a phenomenon that peaked with Black Panther’s T’Challa & Shuri, the ultimate avatars of black wealth, progress and high breeding. But as the world rushes to consume Afrofuturism, the African diaspora and its predisposition to look towards a much desired future clashes directly with African creatives whose own re-imaginings of their past cultures is a way to return to their stolen eras of prosperity.
This is the kind of music renowned producer Sarz has been making for the last decade. He has built a name for himself, as the gateway guy, a producer with the unique skill of taking pretty much any sound or synth he comes across, and decanting it into an Afrobeats hit. He created definitive versions of Afrohouse, AfroEDM, Afrosoca, Afropop and Afropiano long before any of the industry big names thought to experiment with them. He takes risks too, and has for the last half decade, put his weight behind independent artists willing to do the work. His oeuvre is vast yet distinctive, reminiscent of ice fractals growing out into new configurations with each new project.
But nothing in Sarz’s deep catalogue quite embodies the hidden power of Afropop to be wielded as an expression of Africanfuturism as LV N ATTN, his recent EP with relatively new singer Lojay. Sonically, the project is a marvel. There are videos online of Sarz cobbling together the instrumentation for ‘Monalisa’, the album’s most successful single, where he shows how deep his reference points go when he is songmaking. But that doesn’t quite capture the level of care that goes to marrying these influences so they interlock, creating a runway for the new thing their union creates to soar. In many ways Sarz is a technomancer, using ancient knowledge and jolts of electricity to rewire brain circuitry into becoming conduits for his alternative realities.
The first and most understated aspect of LV N ATTN is its sonic grittiness. Across Africa there is a metaphorical grit that coats the air, grating against us all the time, eroding our individual and collective humanity. We feel it acutely after a brush with a thief or a police officer, when a matatu slows inexplicably in the middle of a bush path. The involuntary revulsion rising like a pelt, reminding us to lash out at the other person, an offense is the best defense. Using deep lowing synths, Sarz replicates this sense of grittiness as the soul of the EP so the entire run-time you are buffeted by a gale of unease. You notice the alienness of this unease the few times the album falters (the weak transition between Panty! and Monalisa) but a tinge of bile at the back of your throat is familiar, so you aren’t jolted out of the fantasy his code is writing up inside your head. You swallow hard and forge ahead.
He builds on that grit by filling the silence in your head. To do that, he draws from cinema, starting all the songs on the EP with a medley of noirish-punky synths that immediately conjure visions of endless galaxies. But this is ultimately an afropop album so there are those drums, pulsing like a leyline, leading the listener along a celestial conveyor belt. He allows the listener to float in that endless sky for 2 beats before the bass drops, rapidly shifting the landscape like a teleporter to the first scene, the first planet the listener is to explore; their avatar in that world, an extremely suave Lojay.
Lojay is not at first glance, the archetypal Sarz collaborator. His previous collaborators are Afrohouse chanteuse Niniola, and the lovestruck faerie child Wurld. Even Fela influenced Ogbongjayar, the co-pilot on Sarz’s latest project is an archetype that fits right into Afropop. Sarz finally having freedom to craft an original persona around Lojay, rather than scaling and polishing an already existing one, yields unexpected results. The Lojay on LV N ATTN is visually a prime example of the reluctant heartthrob, clinical in his delivery and mechanical in his phrasing. He is Sarz’s cyborg, a half human, half machine renowned for his glitchy choruses and his ability to skin shape. He is hungry for an opportunity to prove himself as a space cowboy, all he needs is for the right guy to take a chance on him.
LV N ATTN is his proving ground and Lojay excels. On each song, he lies in wait as the song’s thematic synth lays out the scene. It offers you one task, follow that sound. Grit plays softly in the background, reminding you subconsciously not to get too comfortable, unexplored galaxies await. Treating the first bass drop as permission to move, Lojay takes off. The tribal drums provide the tempo for each adventure, leading you through one of several possible timelines as you start wild car chases in dark corners, ignite explosive shoot outs and sneak in steamy flirtations with dangerous men and women. You rush from high to high, chasing Lojay’s echo calls, lulled by the metallic taint of Sarz’s technomancy. This is an album about sex, so every song is a masterclass on the chase. Your body moves in tandem, racing towards the inferno at the end of this story, its destructive light a homing beacon. Then just when you’re about to peak, Sarz resets the simulation, snatching you away, delaying the crest and the crash. He teases a new planet, new opportunities to explore, a chance to start again, the clock reset. It is a game, where the weak willed are doomed, the hamster runs to its death, lulled by waves of endless sonic pleasure.
This is the fantasy, the thrill of danger minus real consequences. Sarz is always in the shadows making things happen, keeping the path clear so a young and hungry Lojay only has getting the money and the girl on his mind. He is the plugged in hacker who knows where all the bodies are buried and where all the security cameras point. He is there at the start of each bar and already at the finish line of each hook by the time Lojay arrives. He knows you want Lojay to win, so he rigs the game just enough that despite desperate circumstances, Lojay eventually succeeds.
But Sarz knows even the most excellently made illusion will fall apart if it is left static. Our captive audience needs some intrigue. So he makes a gamble, and draws on his oldest and most enduring relationship, to bring a twist to end all twists to LV N ATTN. Wizkid in this scenario, brings all his real world notoriety but raised to the nth power. He is the veteran bounty hunter, the serial bad boy whose name is not just known in Africa but across galaxies. Sarz can only call in this favour, because of the long history they have together, but this is the biggest heist in the galaxy and only the best will do. Our young gunslinger has always adored this cosmic version of Wizkid, but he has never actually seen Wizkid work, up close and in-person. It is not a coincidence that Wizkid’s feature comes in dead center in the middle of the EP, on LV N ATTN’s longest song, ignoring the whispered wisdoms for the streaming era. Wizkid is a classic showman, if you want his magic, you provide him floodlights and a stage.
On LV N ATTN, Wizkid shows Lojay and by extension us, that everything we have heard about him is only a shallow, inadequate approximation of his power. Wizkid waltzes right into his verse and performs for his audience of two, Lojay and you. He introduces himself out of habit and with a sleight of hand reveals his nature, a Sphinxian-Serpentine hybrid that all slither and slink, rattling as he hypnotizes his way through the verse, stretching time to accommodate his wiles. There is such a slipperiness to Wizkid’s verse that you are long gone before you realise his voice is tight as vice around your spine, twirling your hips and moving your feet. There is an assuredness to his delivery, that you finally see that his power is divine right and resistance is futile. It takes less than 2 minutes, but feels like a lifetime. You blink and he is gone, an invasive species that has overwhelmed the host biome, sucking up its nutrients in a strangled embrace before laughing to a new, unsuspecting victim.
This bespoke demonstration serves multiple purposes. It shows the scope of Sarz’s gift, flexes his ability to level anyone up. It anoints his new protege as next in line to the throne and sends out a warning. From here on out, there will be no more mistakes.
For the rest of the EP, Lojay is majestic, grounded enough to show a little silliness, manifesting in many ways, including in how he says ‘Monalisan’ in Monalisa and betrays his Yoruba heritage. Now that we’ve crested the high of watching Wizkid work, the rest of the EP is the slippery slide down the other end of the slide. Lojay makes light work of Panty! and Monalisa, careening us right past the finish line just before the last ship leaves the planet. We end on a muted high, breathy but grateful, already fantasizing about a second go. We’ve survived a night in New Lagos, we bested the virtuosity of the principal players in the dinghiest, wildest maze in the galaxy.
Afropop is Africanfuturism’s clearest prism. It separates the political and theological requirements purists and scholars seem to demand from the genre, bleeding only pure emotion, cast as wordspell and clothed in symphonies. LV N ATTN and its contemporaries in Essence and Love Nwantiti, suggest that in this moment, our ability to stretch the present, rather than hungering for potential future timelines has a waiting audience. Sarz and Lojay expand the genre with LV N ATTN, creating an Afropunk pulp thriller, a foolproof way to experience life without consequences, much like living in a gated suburb of an African megacity, skirting extreme poverty, cushioned by the wards of generational wealth. It is a fantasy that a world ravaged by a problem of cosmic proportions is ready to lose themselves in.