“The cycles of Nigerian pop are fast and vast. It takes talent and luck to stay current. There is no artist who can hug currency.” — Michael Kolawole
The first time I heard Fireboy’s breakout single Jealous, I was in disbelief. There was something so different about the song. It had an element that I’d never heard in Nigerian pop music before. His breakout single is a blend of different sounds, ranging from Pop to R&B to Afrobeats and Hindustani. It’s a song with an infectious hook which in many ways comes from an already known blueprint which explains why it is unique yet familiar at the same time.
Following the success of the single, he released another hit; King, a chest-thumping narcissistic hymn. A few months later, he released the impressive Laughter, Tears, and Goosebumps(LTG). Instead of hopping on the shoulders of established pop stars, which often helps establish a career success for the newcomer, Fireboy opted for a tedious but self-assured path by choosing to shoulder the album’s burden alone. He hugged the spotlight and became the album’s sole and lead performer.
That, to some people, is high-flown hubris. But to Fireboy, it’s self-assertion. By contrast, hubris doesn’t have a righteous appeal. For Fireboy, it does. Hubris fuelled most of his outstanding songs. What spurred his debut wasn’t commercial desperation. It was hubris. His hauteur made him garnish the album with soul and truthfulness. And the album’s soul and truthfulness earned him the Triple Crown every artist covets and dreams of: Commercial success, media appeal, and critical charm. Most of the songs on the album proclaimed his awesome vocal inflexions and emotional lyrical skill.
After his glorious debut, he jumped over a sophomore jinx and presented another splendid album. Apollo, named after the Olympian deity of music and poetry, is grand and riveting, iridescent and vibrating. Though he experimented with sound and styles, lyrically the album can’t be compared to his debut, which is a wondrous entry into the Nigerian teeming music industry; a deep personal touchstone for Fireboy; a point of connection that courts him admirers and earns him accolades. But it’s disdained by some people for its minimalist aesthetic.
Apollo is a tapestry woven from Fireboy’s bohemian and unpretentious (or largesse) style. The album’s style and form constantly redefine itself as it goes along, showcasing Fireboy’s non-descriptive music style. The interesting thing about Apollo, once you get around its sonic palette, is that it permeates your body and soul and gives you mild, cruising fun. While the album’s sound works for some, not everyone feels this way and that’s understandable. It’s pretty challenging in terms of its musical tone: It’s dissonant and a bit rough. But if you listen to the lyrics, there is depth and rhetorical frippery in what he’s talking about.
On the one hand, from the opening track, everything seems solid and well-defined. On the other hand, everything is floating and ephemeral — the tone keeps shifting, the sound keeps changing, sometimes mildly and soothingly; sometimes frantically and violently. Contrary to the chest-thumping self-love on King from his debut album, Dreamer reeks of low pride. While Fireboy is beaming with pride and charm on King; on Dreamer, his hubris is broken, his charm darkened. Since romantic rejection is among the most acute and emotionally wrecking pain one can suffer (unrequited love is a one man’s cult nobody wants), Fireboy lets go of his pride, he succumbs to his feelings. While his poetic heart is bleeding, he laments his lovelessness. In contrast to his narcissistic declaration on King, on Dreamer, he bemoans his lovelornness. For his unfortunate situation, Fireboy croons: “You left my message unread, have I been lying to myself?”
On the bass-heavy Go Away, he further exposes his soft spot. Sinking deeper into the sludge of lovelessness, he sings: “What can I do to make it go away / I don’t like this feeling / What should I do if you don’t feel the same / I’m losing patience…” Having wondered how he falls, he later admits that he is only forming tough, deep down he is a soft guy. Lyrically the song shares the same trait and beliefs with ‘Dreamer’. The instrumentations slink and drab, twinkles, sparkles and shatter over pensive, slobbering strings and percussion; then Fireboy slowly reels off his lyrics, spilling out his heart to his lover, and imploring us to support his course, having stripped himself off pride and ego.
Dreamer and Go Away are a wilderness of shimmering pride, the crown jewel of emotional wreckage. At their core lies a lamentation of — or, perhaps, smithereens of hope — how the failure of a romantic relationship can crumble one’s soul and hope. At the heart of Fireboy’s lovelessness lies a great symphony of music. With Apollo, Fireboy created an audio stream of consciousness that keeps the listener in a state of surprise and alertness.
To Fireboy, clothing and dressing styles are part of the music. It’s interesting how he uses a bland, well-placed accessory to make a humble outfit sing. His winsome dressing appreciation is normcore: the alté aught pattern of dressing in banal basics — such as grey sweats and nothing-to-see-here dad-inspired essentials, especially his oversized silhouettes (see Apollo album art and other pictures of his), are rebellion against the frenetic, ever-changing fashion world. His idiosyncratic dressing style is a pleasing patchwork of layers, colours, and virtuoso. Though a stream of homophobic comments were aimed at his sartorial style, as a misfit, instead of dialling down on his style, he elaborately dresses and expresses himself with his sartorial ensemble.
Fireboy’s music is quirky and energetic, innovative and captivating. His albums are musical therapy, they soothe and relieve the soul of its burden. Though Fireboy is a contemporary act, his songs are laced with the throwbacks dust of yesteryears and coloured with the slangs and rhythms of today.
There is an edge to his songs yet they are still clever. The reasons why his hit songs are irresistible are because they hack on human emotion, while entertaining, and enticing us to enter the artist’s world. His mixes are infectious and killer — full of new elements that you can’t exactly call conventional. He’s not reinventing the wheel here. But the point is that it’s not just one sound. It’s a concept. Or perhaps it’s an idea. His sonic conversations are an evolution of scratching, sampling, and drum and bass-influenced hip-hop. When you tune into his lyrics, you’re not only trusting your memory, you’re also trusting that what you’re feeling deep down is right.
With LTG, Fireboy paved his way with gold, stamping his status as an astute musician in Africa and the world. It makes everyone listen and pay attention to what he has to offer. Edging towards a legacy, he starts Apollo with a banging; a self-assured opener titled Champion and ends it with Remember Me. On these songs, Fireboy is gradually building an underlying message for his legacy. That’s a message we can all relate to in good music. That, my friend, is a huge legacy for Fireboy.
Michael Kolawole is a critic, screenwriter and poet.