Ayra Starr’s “The Year I Turned 21” is a Tale of Growth

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The year I turned 21

Since joining Mavin Records five years ago after a cover she posted on Instagram caught the attention of label boss Don Jazzy, Ayra Starr has evolved into a global star.  She has embarked on a world tour, amassed a staggering 31 million devoted listeners on Spotify (the most for an African female artist), and worked with talents from across the globe, like Kelly Rowland, Tyla, David Guetta, and most recently the Puerto Rican reggaeton sensation Rauw Alejandro.

Her rise to prominence hardly needed a stretch of the imagination: Ayra Starr, her debut EP released in 2021, yielded only 13 minutes of music but was enough to signal her talent. The EP consisted of romance, heartbreak, and empowerment themes. It was also enough to establish some fundamental facts about the then-19-year-old: a gifted vocalist with a youthful, whimsical charm. 

Building on the EP’s success, Ayra Starr the same year released her debut album, 19 & Dangerous, the first in two projects named according to her age, something the British singer Adele has done with her 19, 21, 25, and 30 albums. The album’s mega-hit, Bloody Samaritan, presented a challenge for Ayra Starr, who admitted struggling to find her flow over producer London’s beats. Yet she conquered that obstacle and the album soared. But she was not done yet. Released as singles, Rush (2022) and Sability (2023) propelled her to the international stage, the former securing her first Grammy nomination for Best African Music Performance. Now, she officially turns a year older in her latest offering, The Year I Turned 21, a poignant milestone that encapsulates her growth and maturity.

The album opens with Birds Sing of Money, a fitting overture that commences with a Fuji-style vocalist praising the singer as if to announce her ascension to superstardom. In this aperitif Ayra Starr’s unwavering confidence is established, as she declares, “I run up blocks, I run ’em myself / money make the rain come, I’ma make some.” Unlike the pubescent vibe of Cast, Birds Sing of Money seems to proclaim, ‘Watch out, world, I’m grown now.’ 

She transitions into Goodbye, an exploration of love, with Ayra feeling liberated as she bids a toxic lover farewell. The track portrays a free Ayra, away from her lover and ready for the next, and a pleading Asake as the toxic lover who wants her back. Her continuous adlibs “It’s a warm-up” seem to signal her easing into the album’s flow, as she effortlessly glides into the infectious rhythm of Commas. Commas, produced by London, finds Ayra Starr reveling in the life of a star. She abandons her worries, traveling to “Barbados” “Havana” while increasing her “commas” — a slang for boundless wealth. Originally released as a single, Commas is wrapped cohesively into the album’s narrative and serves as a prelude to the feminist anthem Woman Commando. Here, Ayra Starr assembles her “woman commandos” — Brazilian sensation Anitta and R&B dance royalty Coco Jones — for an unapologetic celebration of female solidarity. The result is a brilliant cross-continental Afropop fusion.

Sensuality oozes on Control and one can almost envision Ayra swaying her hips to the rhythm. The track pays homage to Shakira, embedding the iconic Hips Don’t Lie chorus. The album reaches its emotional core with Lagos Love Story, Rhythm & Blues, and 21. The first sees her pining for a love she hopes to last, her yearning and vulnerable vocals. In the second she croons about her “personal person” who never stresses her, the literal definition of an OG. By the time 21 arrives, we’ve witnessed her excitement, laughter, and love story unfold, making 21 the perfect epicenter. Here, she reflects on her journey, music, and newfound age. The emotional rollercoaster continues with Last Heartbreak Song, where Ayra sings of unrequited love alongside American R&B singer Giveon. The two artists blend their vocals to create a worthy heartbreak anthem that rivals Beggie Beggie (featuring Ckay in 2021). Yet, pitting these masterpieces against one another would be a disservice, for each testifies to Ayra’s unparalleled artistry.

The album’s wind-down begins with the pre-released Bad Vibez featuring street-pop star Seyi Vibez. It continues with Orun, a song preaching acceptance and forgiveness. Coming next is the crown jewel of the album, Jazzy’s Song, a homage to her label boss Don Jazzy that interpolates the intro of Wande Coal’s You Bad (2009). The melodic sing-song chorus elevates Jazzy’s Song to an instant favorite. Even among the album’s many commercial offerings, its genuineness and the nostalgia it evokes ensure it won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

1942 is a haunting number that grapples with the loss of youth, performed alongside Milar, Ayra’s younger brother and frequent co-writer. They use the metaphor of Don Julio 1942 Tequila, a drink that awakens them to their good fortune and their desperate desire to keep it. As if on cue, their mother’s interlude from The Kids Are Alright reassures them. The Kids Are Alright is deeply personal, and delves into an emotive area that Ayra never discusses. “Hope no clouds are blocking the view, hope you can see what I turned into / hope God doesn’t judge you by your sins,” she sings, dedicating the entire song to her late father.

What makes this album special is its completeness. Ayra takes us on a total journey, baring her soul, and touching upon facets of her existence — from the exhilaration of newfound stardom to the complexities of love and loss. Ayra doesn’t just sing, she tells a story of her experiences with the help of her family and globally renowned. It’s an excellent sophomore album. If turning 21 has unlocked such genius within her, then one can only imagine the heights she’ll reach in the future. 

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