There was a time when an Iyanya album would mean an influx of R&B into the Nigerian pop scene. That time is long gone—the phase went unnoticed and didn’t last past his debut album. To have an idea of what that Iyanya may have been there’s an indication on the Project Fame YouTube channel.
That version of Iyanya at its worst would be an ingratiating bore; and at best a competent balladeer. Instead he became the continent-wide pop star. In between what is and what could have been is the song ‘Kukere’. Ostensibly, a celebration of a dance from his state, Cross Rivers, it became the catalyst for the south-south singer’s transformation. It is unlikely Iyanya will ever have a more popular song.
On his third solo album Applaudise Iyanya doesn’t try hard to outdo ‘Kukere’. That bird has flown. And in any case, it will be a doomed attempt as the half-hearted dance number Okamfor shows. Instead his listeners get a subtle harking back to his R&B roots. Back then the shabby trousers on Project Fame was unsuited for an R&B star, to say nothing of the struggle beards; the sartorial turnaround means the genre and the man are now tailored for each other. As for his facial hair, its exquisitely-shaved existence is well displayed on the album cover. If R&B is concerned with image as much as singing, all that’s missing from the Applaudise cover is a come-hither wink.
So it’s natural that Applaudise opens with a beckoning. Album opener ‘Wambi,’ Yoruba for ‘come here’, is addressed to a lover but also the listener. One for lovemaking, the other for attention: Iyanya as lover says, give me your body; Iyanya as singer says, give me your ears. Lover and listener are, of course, exchangeable since in both instances the agenda is seduction.
Pursuing the theme further on ‘Baby Daddy’ he recruits Banky W, the industry’s standard for sex-crooning. (On the song Mr W pays homage to 2face: ‘I can be your 2 Baba,’ he says. ‘You can be my Annie’. Banky may sing about the process endlessly but he seems aware that the only one of his peers with living, breathing proofs of rampant baby daddy-ism is 2face.)
‘Baby Daddy’ is underwhelming chiefly because, nominally speaking, two of a country’s better vocalists are on a single song and this is what you get? Banky is still trying out his rap skill and Iyanya is much too focused on charming the pants off a lady to actually sing. Somehow the man has lost faith in singing as sexual stimulation. The failure of that first album must have caused irremediable damage. Stardom, he discovered quickly, is a better hit with the ladies than singing. Those low-rent motivational speakers were right after all: talent alone is not enough.
This is not to say he has given up singing. It just isn’t enough singing for an alumnus of a singing contest. So try as he may, old habits die hard. And successful habits are immortal. On his breakout album Desire, he relied on stellar dance-beat production. It worked. And he does same on Applaudise. The upshot is when he features a gifted singer his own shortcomings become clearer. Plus, he’s no great songwriter either.
What then does he bring? An ability to select competent producers. Certain producers on the album deserve credit for infusing innovation in the endless scroll of Nigeria’s pop clichés. Take these lines from ‘Commotion’:
Although the latter part of those lines are funny, taken together those are mediocre rhyming patterns. But producer TY Mix locates a sweet spot in the hook where he inserts a blissful cascade of chords. All Iyanya has to do is find lines that fit and together they transform the banal ‘Commotion’ into a sure-fire dancefloor hit. TY Mix manages to pull off an artful mix of makossa, pop and highlife on a single song.
Iyanya manages a different feat: there are several sounds on this album, mostly integrations and variations of highlife, pop and R&B and in at least three languages, yet he sounds convincing on most of them. Each of the tracks—even the pleasing tribute to his mother ‘Mama’—was made to dance to. And by Jove, does he succeed.
There are a few missteps, as on the token Yoruba song ‘Awade’ and token Igbo tune ‘Egwu’. Strangely, when he steps outside of the country on ‘Macoma’ featuring Ghanaians Efya and Sarkodie, the result is superb. That song was made for the repeat button.
On ‘Again’ featuring Seyi Shay Iyanya adopts Blackstreet’s ‘Got to Get You Home’. Following his lead Ms. Shay, who matches her male peer risqué line for risqué line, co-opts Colour Me Bad’s ‘I wanna sex you up’. You can say this is what happens when today’s singers channel their influences lazily. But there’s another reason for this adoption: insecurity.
For artists focused on conquering the market and with a bit of vocal talent, the Nigerian pop scene can be perilous. And talent, easily, can become an albatross. As listeners are inundated with middling music, the market, the reasoning goes, may reject a unique talent for its strangeness. What to do than pad said talent with something inescapably familiar. Thus, the ceaseless sampling.
As for lyrics, how do you explain this exercise in non sequiturs?
Those are the first lines on the dance-ready ‘Ocho’. Naturally, you’ll be too busy dancing to notice the disjointed lines. And they make up a whole verse! It’s worth reflecting on how only pop stars (and maybe poets) get away with these things. Should another user of words—writers, say—try same they’ll immediately lose their reputations. To even it out, maybe pop stars should get editors and writers producers?
In any case, by the end of Applaudise the lover’s seduction is more successful than the listener’s. But that has always been the Iyanya-plan. As he cried all those years ago on Kukere, “All my ladies!” It is a strategy pop stars, especially R&B singers, have always used. Get the ladies and the dudes will follow.
It is thus hard to begrudge Iyanya since his execution matches the intention on Applaudise. That intention can be questioned, though. If his 2013 sophomore was well titled Desire, Applaudise should be called Dance. And whatever growth from Desire to Dance is perceptible is down to the production team on both. You’ll have to think fans of that TV show from long ago hate to see the man's talent go to a dancing waste.