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Wizkid Bad To Us

by Carl Terver

For many critics, Wizkid is not an artist to give serious attention to because he doesn’t espouse a definitive artistic vision. An elusiveness that has been to his advantage so far, providing no straightforward way to judge his career. Perhaps, the only time we could weave any solid vision on his body of work was with his 2011 debut Superstar, which is nothing more than an interpretation of his arrival. Where his “Holla At Ya Boy” (sampled from Se7en’s “Girls”) was anthemic, songs like “Wad Up” and “Don’t Dull,” “Gidi Girl” and “I Love My Baby” showed testosterone flexes and romance respectively; while in “Oluwa Lo Ni” he was thankful to God, “Pakurumo” was a peep into his party jam prowess. But no one knew “Tease Me” would be the Wizkid who’d emerge from that album going forward. Because from the wanton character of the track (a freestyle) where he proved himself to be an elemental, free-spirited soundman, skipping over any grand artistic ideas—a foreshadowing, as he’d release an EP Soundman Vol. 1 eight years laterhe attracted a trail of criticism.

For a long time, he has been accused, chiefly, of being lyrically shallow, of his lyrics sounding like nursery rhymes (say! Nursery rhymes is a compliment; they are close to folksongs which are associated with being classical). I once stumbled on a Medium post analysing Wizkid’s lyrics across three albums (Superstar, Ayo, and Sounds from the Other Side) using charts and graphs, which placed “baby” and “love” as dominant words in Wizkid’s lyrics and judges Superstar as his most lyrically engaging album. But we don’t, however, need research to deduce that Wizkid’s lyrics post-Superstar became less varied and nuanced, his newly-adopted form even reliant on a more successful hack of duplication. For example, what is a Wizkid lyrics without “She tell me say”? I have often thought that if Wizkid’s critics were not so aristocratic, and for one minute became his fan, they would tirelessly discuss the beauty of “she tell me say” as a deftly unique style.

I have always wanted to answer them. (For a rather tangential context, see my essay “Defending Naira Marley to Elitists.”) First of all, they’re classist and inflexible, the latter adjective making them incapable of developing new thoughts on a subject, which results in an ossification of their tastes, incongruent to appreciating something as dynamic as music. Because music is beyond “deep lyrics,” as some prefer to term it, gravitas, or depth. Music is melody first: You fall in love with the sax on Fela’s “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am,” before you hear its lyrics. It is the sensory effect on the ears before the words; the arrangement of notes to accomplish rhythmic harmony, like the combination of ska and rocksteady to create reggae. Or the beauty Pheelz created on Fireboy DML’s “Eli,” fusing Chinese flute with Afropop. Words, no doubt, are magical too, and great lyrics on a good sound is braingasmic; however, the fallout or bad arrangement of sound is usually the first judgement for bad music, the same reason a bad voice gives us tinnitus. Whether strong or poetic lines, rhythmic arrangement is important. For example, Moby’s “Why Does My Heart Feels So Bad” relies on the repetition of two lines (“why does my heart feel so bad / why does my soul feel so bad”) throughout the song, accomplished by how the lyrics are performed and placed within a deliberate acoustic vision. This is where I find Wizkid appealing.

A year or two ago, a user on Twitter demanded a better opening in Nigerian pop history than “Fine gyal no pimple / I love your swag and I love your dimple, simple . . .” (“Tease Me”). If you find yourself momentarily numb or in a lacuna trying to think of a better opening, you were probably arrested by the simple, yet subtly, and vainly profound creativity of those opening lines. The trick is in the second line: it could have ended with the rhyme “dimple” and the accompanying chant “yea yea yea.” But introducing “simple” after “dimple” just before the chant makes it more tang. What follows is a memorable composition of a simple six-line end rhymes (“No one can test . . . Just to see your face / I can go to space”) broken with the stretched “Girl come on girl,” then relaxed with “No delay.” Once again, Wizkid could have stopped here and gone on to the hook, “Please me, tease me . . .”

But immediately, he adds another final line, “I know you can feel my pain,” picking up the uniform end rhyme /ei/ which was broken with “girl come on girl”—and picks up the cadence from the relaxed “No delay,” to “…feel my pain.” And once again breaks it with a repetition of the stretched girl come on girl, capping it with “no delay.” Then enters the hook. (Pardon my technicality.)

This might sound like making too much of a big deal from the ordinary, but it is the character of great art to emerge from the simple, and even plain. And it is with this technique or lyrical flex—exemplified in the song “Tease Me”—that Wizkid propagates his kinetic poetry. Apart from having some of the best opening lines (“Two seconds everything don burst o,” “I don’t wanna, lose you this time, I will never…,” “I got a pretty, pretty lady wey no like no stress”)—Burna Boy being a contender (“When de gbedu dey enter body” and more)—Wizkid possesses an unmatched, internalised symmetrical process of lyricism in the parlance of Naija lyrics. This is what accounts, for example, for his amazing opening salvos.

Where this shines more is in the track “No Stress,” a masterclass on the usage of cadence, from the Made In Lagos album. Beginning with an octave hook, the first verse unrolls with a mild nona-syllabic line that ends in a deliberate, strong caesura (“dat”), as the next line picks up—“She tell me say my love make her whine dat,” the third, a parallel of the second, completing a tercet with the same end rhymes (dat-dat-max). The magic here is that where the fourth line begins with the uniform (from lines the previous two lines) “She tell me say,” you don’t expect a break from the ensuing end rhyme scheme of dat-dat-max (aaa) to a bc bc: “…na only me dey make her move, dey groove” (recall “dimple/simple”); with the next line returning to a as if the bc bc rhyme scheme was a taboo. But even more thrilling in his lyrical flex is when he introduces tri-syllabic end rhymes in the ensuing quatrain:

I’ve been waitin’ for tonight, night-night

When the energy feels right, right-right

Where my touch make you feel right, right-right

Say tonight we come alive, ’live-’live

and the deliberate ad-lib placing of “hol’ am” and “oh yeah” in the next quatrain with a similar tri-syllabic end rhyme scheme (emphasis mine):

Make you drink up while we reminisce (hol’ am)

Say a prayer for our enemies (oh yeah)

Say my love na your remedy (oh yeah)

Baby girl, you mean a lot to me (a lot to me)

In the second verse, there’s a perfect lyrical flex, and with mathematical consciousness, with which Wizkid delivers the 3rd and 5th lines: “After the gbege me and my baby, yeah, we cuddle every night / . . . Steady while she ridin’, and she gentle when she ride”—and a graceful élan he ends the verse with a dragged inflection of the word “tired” as “tian.” Followed up yet again by another flex, this time a quintet, each line (except the first two) of varying lengths, yet ending in a tri-syllabic end rhyme scheme, performed with symmetric spontaneity one can only describe as Wizkidesque:

I’ve been waitin’ for tonight, yah-yah

She say Wizzy be the man, yah-yah

She say Wizzy get the stamina

Won wa mi o

Omoge nwa mi na.

For me, this has always been quintessential Wizkid and the quality I seek in his music, since he’s good at it, after all. Before I listened to his latest album More Love, Less Ego (a ridiculous and impertinent title), the question I saw on Twitter was “when will the album mature?” It was part of the banter online that accompanies the typical unappeal now customary to a Wizkid album. Made In Lagos, just like More Love, Less Ego, was met with scorn, mockery, and criticism, only for it to blossom and keep blossoming two years after, winning the Headies Album of the Year and Best Afrobeats Pop Album (2022), and two Grammy nominations for Best Global Music Album (2021) and Best Global Music Performance (2022) for the song “Essence.” So with the number of average albums out this year, Wizkid’s critics adding MLLE to the roll call, his fans, as usual, answered these critics to wait for the album to mature. (LOL.)

I love a good album for its wholesome, immersive experience. But averagely, Nigerian musicians rarely grant me this experience since I’ve had to skip songs on album listens because, of course, here we go again with the derivative. It’s a reason I find it hard to write about them. My album listens are often curatorial, to select the songs that communicate more to me. I played More Love, Less Ego on YouTube on an insomniac night at Whiteline Books residence in Kubwa, Abuja, where during the day I watched from the window, the train returning from Kaduna as that infamous rail line resumed operation after the bandits’ attack. The first track, “Money & Love,” samples Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo”; it is unoriginal and unimpressive. However, the second track “Balance” opens with an inviting bop sound and feel-good. I write it down in my notebook beside me.

The next song is “Bad To Me,” which has a video. (It inspired the title of this essay.) A kind of Afrocalypso and salsa fusion, it shows Wizkid in his soundman groove, the opening lines bursting with his signature: “Highway, burst it my way / This kind of body don dey cause e migraine.” The visuals show the 32-year-old singer still flourishing in youthful energy; with his permanent small figure and ever-present bare chest and abandon, singing an infectious hook, “Lady, girl, say your body bad to me,” it feels like what identity-crisis 31-year-old me just needs. I write it down, too. “Sugar,” featuring Ayra Starr, follows. It was a pre-album single. Already used to my ears, I pass. “Everyday,” the ensuing song, attempts to speak for the album’s title “more love, less ego” but the attempt dies with its intro.

After a 13-track experience, “Balance,” “Bad To Me,” and “Deep” stick out. (The track “Flower Pads” is a runner-up.) On the strength of its sound, MLLE largely remains monotonous, exempting “Special” with its touch of highlife. “Balance” approaches some range in its songwriting—“Lady so much grace got to pleasure my own”—it is a pleasurable jam, and the interspersion of the word “balance” in the hook titillates. “Bad To Me” has a refrain that makes you return to it, a playful “E-ye ge-ge / Yo-ma ge-ge-ge / Casamigos / For my amigos.” And Deep is clandestinely spiritual.

In 1953, American R&B singer James Crawford released a song titled “Jock-A-Mo.” Not an initial success, it however became popular when re-recorded as “Iko Iko” by Dixie Cups in 1965. A version by the Belle Stars from 1983 was used as a soundtrack in the 1988 Rain Man, an American road drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. The song currently has, combined, over a hundred covers: studio covers and on the Internet. The song’s charm is its hook that enamours listeners. A simple jabberwocky: “Iko iko ai ne, jack-a-mo fina ai na ne, jack-a-mo fina neh!” which doesn’t matter if you commit a mondegreen singing it. The lyrics in Era’s Ameno isn’t a real language (pseudo-Latin), but “dorime” and the other words we play glossolalia to (ameno, la ti reh) have stuck with us. Or what of the Italian singer Adriano Celentano who in 1972 did a song “Prisencolinensinainciusol” with nonsense lyrics (English), to prove Italians would patronise any American song, was proven right, and it became a hit? What makes us enjoy songs with lyrics we don’t understand when we listen to Awilo Longomba, Angelique Kidjo, or Nena’s “99 Luftballons”?

By its etymology, “lyric,” from the Greek word “lurikós,” comes from the tradition of the lyric poem—poetry recited or sung to the musical instrument lyre. Today, it simply means the words in a song. In its original sense, however, its meaning hasn’t departed from “songlike,” “melodious,” and “musical.” This explains the appeal of the songs mentioned above. There’s a blur, at the end of the day, where one can’t say this is lyrics, and this is music. There’s a fusion. But our sophistication as complex beings—and especially with language—allows us, once in a while, to perform a recognition of the split. But even when we do, how do we know we are experiencing both sound and lyrical content parsingly? From the foregoing, isn’t Wizkid, therefore, very lyrical, or has lyrics? He aims for the feel-good, for euphony and lyrical flex, adding a joie de vivre that makes his songs evergreen. And not being so good, but bad to us, having deceived us all these years with his subtle hedonism and playfulness, insisting on our vanity, he invites us, as in the opening line of “Deep,” to “lose yourself to the riddim one time,” and unburden from seriousness.♦

Carl Terver has a BA English from Benue State University, Makurdi, and writes about film, literature, and music. He is the founding editor of Afapinen.