Nigerian singer Darey’s problem is built into his practice. He is singing R&B with traces of traditional music, with all of the baggage that comes with being in the middle. The question Darey has sought to answer album after album is this: Which is more rewarding—the traditional or the western?
With the guidance of producer Cobhams Asuquo, he got the breakout hit ‘Not the Girl’. Without the balance Asuquo lent to his music, Darey’s music has thrived more than triumphed. He still hasn’t released a song quite as accepted as the excellent ‘Not the Girl’ (2008).
The tension between the western and the local remains on new album Naked. But the songs here are more straightforward. Either traditional or western. No longer is he trying to have it both ways on the same song. Meaning he is carrying his baggage much better than he did on previous album Double Dare (2011).
There he was too earnest and quite pretentious. It was worse when he attempted high notes; it was worse on the fully English songs. The problem was only mildly alleviated on that album’s more local tunes. At the time it seemed radio-loving Nigerians could only take him in small doses of his more relaxed songs like 'Carry Dey Go' and 'Style na Style' from 2009's UnDAREYted.
On Naked, he reins in the pretentiousness somewhat. He has to. He has self-acclaimed ‘voice of the streets’ Olamide on a song. And he is working on a broadsheet of class. Olamide represents the grassroots, the streets. But the album opens with hints of Fela, who, dead for nearly two decades, may be turning into an elite, expatriate indulgence. (The dregs of society may crowd around the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos; but within, it is the expatriate and the rich buying the pricy beers.) There is even the Disneyesque verse and cadence on ‘I Go Make Am’.
Surprisingly, juggling these classes loosens up Darey. To be sure he has always had a playful side; only that it was obscured by the earnestness of his vision. Perhaps he took solemnity as a measure of maturity. Now he is taking it easy, as he says on opener ‘Asiko Laiye’. The first half of this 13-track album is one of the best opening sequence of recent Nigerian releases.
As always, Darey is interested in love. As usual, his concern is part puppy love, part self-help manual. You are beautiful as you are, he said on Double Dare. They remain beautiful on Naked, but he has to remind them to be au naturel: “No need makeup,” he says on Orekelewa. "Plenty husbands is too much," he tells a liberal lady on 'Delilah (Taxi Driver)'.
You can picture him handing his beloved a mirror, a daily devotional, and perhaps a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People as Valentine’s gift. As they say, there are worse gifts.
The one oblique reference to sex is on the winkingly titled ‘Inside of You’. The song features Asa, which suggests a double volte face as two ‘serious’ artists not especially known for naughty lyrics have decided to take a dive in the proverbial gutter. Backed by horns and reggae, the artists exchange their respective seriousness and amiable raunchiness, although Asa is mostly coy.
If on ‘Inside of You’, Darey splits his earnestness, he holds onto it on ‘Pray for Me’ featuring Soweto Gospel Choir. And this time the seriousness is appropriate. As the song is a retelling of the prodigal son story from the Bible, one can finally say Darey has a divine serious stance with a straight face.
Months ago, social media erupted as listeners noticed a similarity between the song and Timi Dakolo’s ‘Wish Me Well’. And since then both songs have claimed awards. Dakolo’s took the Headies; Darey’s took All Africa Music Awards.
This is either an indication that award ceremonies look for the same things and ignore the finer points of public debate; or it merely means both are good songs. The ideal thing would have been to give Cobhams Asuquo both awards since he worked directly with Dakolo on his and, as as mentioned earlier, has worked with Darey in the past. Asuquo’s influence is on both songs.
Yet by featuring Asuquo’s production on a single song, the sober, piano-laden ‘Lie to You’, Naked is wholly a product of Darey’s creativity. It may feature only traces of the mellow marvel of that producer’s artistry, but with its cohesiveness and aural excellence, Naked has a lot that is good going on, and no one but a nosy critic is likely to notice Asuquo's absence. Darey, the serious singer, permit the cheek, has produced a seriously good album.