Anyone looking to squeeze lines to a lover through a religious opening can take lessons from the most unlikely of places, the Bible. In the book bearing his name, good ol' King Solomon got there before an assortment of pop artists.
This mixing of signals retains its pull. The Lord may claim the body as his temple, but men insist on dwelling therein. The new song by Cobhams Asuquo, 'Empty', isn't explicit in its designs—as with every song by the man, it is tasteful even as it could refer to the Lord or a lover—but it does say “If you leave me, I’ll be so empty.” Talk about thirst.
Asuquo, who is releasing an album soon, is well-known as a producer, but has made a few songs of his own, mostly in the Christian key. Broadly, he is interested in what it is to be human—to be human in relation to other humans, that is. This is connected to his interest in love: it is certainly the most fraught of relations between humans. Ordinarily, Asuquo's Christian background might deprive his love songs from the tension, sensual and sexual, of some of the best songs covering the topic, but the near-gravelly intensity of his vocals forces some tension.
‘Empty’ is spare. Vocals, piano chords, and some strings. The music, a calm entity devoid of the raucousness of mainstream Nigerian music, builds to a crescendo and then returns to Mr Asuquo’s voice, the focal point of the music. Here is an artist confident both in his voice and his music. It is church music brought to the public. If pop music conveys a sense that the listener should be dancing, this one says you should be feeling. As the sound swells, the listener might get giddy.
He may be about to release his first album, but Asuquo already has a style. A song by Cobhams Asuquo is a song by Cobhams Asuquo. So the spare aesthetic of the new song follows one established by the artist on an earlier song titled ‘Ordinary People’. Incidentally, parts of the new video call to mind the video for John Legend’s ‘Ordinary People’. All three are songs stripped back and wholly dependent on the singer’s voice and the sober potency of a few music instruments.
“I really need a miracle. Tell me, is that you?" the narrator says with a generous serving of anguish. On the song, it is never clear if he gets what he needs from Lord or lover. The video, however, provides the narrator, as played by Cobhams, with a happy ending. A lady takes him by the hand and leads him away from the piano. This is an inversion of the ending of Darey's 2009 mellow hit, 'Not the Girl', a song written by Asuquo.
On that song and its video, an anguished narrator contemplates the ways of a straying lover, but there was no consolation. We are left to think the lover addressed on that song will leave. Cobhams was a single man at the time. He is married now. Perhaps he needs to believe in the romance of happy endings. We don’t. Not when anguish is this convincing, heartfelt, and backed by Cobhams' soft, excellent orchestration. 'Empty' mighty find a place in church, but its open-ending defies the rock-solid hope and optimism of the Christian church.
On the other hand, lovers might have to ignore how one-sided the entire song is: there is just one person doing all the talk to a silent partner. The happy love song is declarative. "You are my African Queen" goes the chorus of the 2 face classic. The sad ones are filled with questions. "I've done all I know to do and there's still no sign of you. Are you coming soon?" goes a line from Darey's emotional 'No Stars'. 'Empty' goes from pleading—"I need you"—to questioning—"Is that you?"
If Nigerian pop music is stuck with a hangover from a perpetual party, Cobhams Asuquo's 'Empty' is just what the doctor recommends the morning after.
Buy 'Empty' by Cobhams Asuquo on iTunes.