Wande Coal is in doubt. He records those doubts as skits on his new album. In a series of sketches using different words, he asks: Do they still love me? Can I make money off this? And crucially, Will they respect Wanted as much as my debut? Taken together, these sketches form critical notes of his new music. Coal never appears on them but clearly he controls the story they tell. Apparently, everyone wants to be a critic these days, even pop stars.
Let’s go back a few years.
In 2011, Wande Coal released three songs, ‘Been Long You Saw Me’, ‘Private Trips’ and ‘Go Low’. The last of these addressed issues outside of the music less self-consciously than on Wanted. The issue then was a nude photo that showed up online. After demanding, in true Nigerian style, that God goes after his detractors, he concludes, ‘I don talk that matter finish…Get back to the groove o.’
On Wanted, he won’t get back to the groove, interrupting every few songs for yet another entry in his critic’s diary. He has a ready excuse: The groove on Wanted is less immediate than on those singles from 2011.
‘Change is here,’ declares the first skit, connecting Coal to the political zeitgeist. On his debut Mushin 2 MoHits seven years ago Wande invented the zeitgeist; now he wants to connect to it. Maybe there’s something called inventor-fatigue? And in any case, in the time since his debut the pop style created by that album has gone mainstream, trailed by all of the variations and deviations that come with the honour. Davido, Sean Tizzle and, in particular, Wizkid, among a long list of more or less successful imitations, have done all kinds of things to it—Davido hip-hopped it, Wizkid added whimsical lyrics, Sean Tizzle auto-tuned it. And now the originator scarcely has elbow room.
Wande Coal acknowledges the status quo by featuring Wizkid on ‘Kpono’, an unfortunate song. A previous collaboration ‘For Me’ off Wizkid’s debut Superstar was passable; this one is unforgivable. A vulgar song, the only way to approach it is to see wisdom in traditions that ensure a king and his heir don’t meet alive.
Halfway into the album, a skit informs us ‘You just heard the first set of bombs…and you must be in awe of the vocal masterclass distilled with impeccable dexterity’. The awful phrasing, self-satisfied delivery and frankly fraudulent claim apart, was this necessary? This silly skit feeds into a song with 2face. (At a recent event 2face declared Coal his favourite artist—a preference he shared with a significant percentage of Nigeria’s pop audience before Wanted.) It is a testament to the duo’s talent that they elevate Legendury Beats’ trite production to something quite enjoyable. A collaboration with AKA, ‘Same Shit’, a straight-up R&B song with traditional rap verse, is better. Following ‘All Eyez on Me’, AKA’s song with Burna Boy, the South Africa-Nigeria pop liaison keeps giving.
The major collaboration on Wanted, however, is with Maleek Berry, who produces nine songs. In the past the alliance has yielded a hit—2012’s ‘My Way’—and a very good dance song—2013’s ‘Kilaju’. ‘My Way’ shows up as a bonus track here, with the duo trying to recreate the magic to mixed results. The UK-based Berry has a surer hand on straightforward R&B songs and falters on local tunes—the exception being his superb turn on the 2014 single ‘Baby Hello’. Wande’s fuji influence means Berry has to supply those tunes. It doesn’t quite come off.
As for what lingers from the debut, it’s easy to picture Coal listening to M2M before heading to the studio, trying to figure what he can pilfer from that record. He settles on M2M’s much-praised love song ‘Ololufe’. Which becomes Wanted’s ‘SuperWoman’. It reminds his audience that he can sing. But of course they never forgot. But they want more. They want a reinvention of the zeitgeist. Or at least a capturing of it. That doesn’t happen here. We all thought otherwise, but it was never going to happen. Wande was playing a losing game.
The impossibility of reclaiming an old self is Wanted’s tragedy. That and the feeling that all of the good songs have petered out in the half-dozen years between debut and sophomore. Anyone paying attention can produce a great track-list consisting of singles released in that time. 'Take Rotate', 'The Kick', 'Private Trips', 'Go Low', 'Been Long You Saw Me', 'Amorawa' and 'My Way'. Then from new songs on Wanted, throw in 'Same Shit', 'Ashimapeyin', 'Make You Mine', 'Weekend' and 'Monster' and that’s a dozen songs of unfettered pop joy. That selection is more deserving of the self-serving skits on Wanted. As it stands, the skits refer to a non-existent record. This, you could say, is why pop stars are not critics.
Mind you, that most of the songs on the phantom track-list were produced by erstwhile partner/producer Don Jazzy tells its own story. Yet that’s an incomplete tale. Uneven production on Wanted may be explicable on grounds of Don Jazzy’s absence; forgettable lyrics less so. With the emphasis on the sound it created, it's easy to neglect M2M also had a varied delivery and memorable lyrics. But it is worth saying: Before Olamide, Wande Coal had fashioned a way to make Yoruba enjoyable for non-speakers of the language. He knew to mix Yoruba with street slang, he knew to mix slang with English. He knew to play with all three on song after song. Mushin2MoHits gave quotables. Wanted gives disposables.
To address the questions framing the album, the questions Wande needs answered, let’s return to 2015.
Would they love me? Yes Wande, for ‘Ashimapeyin’ and a couple other songs. Can I make money off this? Certainly, lesser albums have made lesser artists rich. Will they respect Wanted as much as my debut? On this one, like you Wande, we are in doubt.