Since emerging on the radar in 2019, Bnxn has grown into one of the most vibrant young voices in Nigerian popular music. He’s got the critical acclaim to attest to his skill, winning the coveted Next Rated Artist award at The Headies last year, beating fellow upstarts like Ruger, Ayra Starr, Lojay, and Zinoleesky. Commercially, he’s no slouch either; headlining a sold-out show last November at the Indigo O2, in London, he has also met the current obsession of gauging Nigerian artists by their performance overseas. Artistry-wise, he stands out for his nasal tenor, his gentle, mid-tempo delivery and careful songwriting, a bill of goods with which he has explored a range of moods and emotions, from vulnerability to self-confidence to sensuality.
After two EPs and several singles, the twenty-six-year-old has released his debut album, the fifteen-track Sincerely, Benson. The epistolary reference follows the example of Burna Boy’s sixth album, Love, Damini. Perhaps it’s evidence of the Grammy winner’s direct influence on the upstart, given he’s influenced him in other ways as his former label boss: he partially inspired Bnxn to dump his former moniker, Buju, last February. Besides a shared love for dreadlocks, the two also classify their music as Afro-fusion.
From its cover art and title, you guess that Sincerely, Benson will be largely self-referential. The former casts Bnxn as a stone figure, like he had an ill-advised staredown with a certain mythical creature with serpent-hair. The album proves to be self-referential: the first three songs, for instance, are Bnxn-centric. Taking himself as his subject in My Life, he shows you the scarred face that sometimes lurks behind the bright masque of celebrity.
“Just in case they talking about pen game and they don’t say my name/ I don’t like the sound of the joke,” he sings in Best Of Me, sounding so self-assured that it borders on hubris. In PRAY, Magicsticks’ production invites reflection; matching its churchy undertone, a choir backs Bnxn as he reflects on past travails and new successes. A line recalls his exploits at the Indigo O2, but another reveals a bias endured in his life before fame: “As my skin come yellow, You say I no sabi hustle.” The line refers to a stereotype that certain Nigerians have about the light-skinned not being as gritty as the dark-complexioned. Using his life as fodder, Bnxn walks you through peaks and depressions, from the pessimism of being doubted to the rapture of performing on a global stage to a horde of outstretched hands.
He does not, however, rely solely on his lived experiences. This February, when he released Gwagwalada as a single—a song in this album—he hadn’t visited the town in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja. Yet, alongside Seyi Vibez and Kizz Daniel, he creates a soulful jam, with the added bonus of a memorable metaphor. As framed by Bnxn, Gwagwalada, the place, represents an Edenic retreat from life’s bustles, a negativity-free zone. You could even call it an extension of Bnxn’s psyche; after all, he desires only to stay above the fray of life: “I no fit force am if e don pass my power.”
Compared to Gwagwalada‘s, the album’s other metaphors seem inferior. Consider Sweet Tea (Aduke), whose lyrics highlight the sexual and emotional frustration caused by unrequited love. The titular sweet tea is a euphemism for carnal gratification, but the imagery is hardly evocative. Perhaps this is because a surfeit of food-related metaphors in Afrobeats has rendered the gimmick trite. Compared to the overused banana or cucumber, though, sweet tea as a metaphor for sexual satiation is considerably fresh.
To capture the regret that sometimes overwhelms you in the aftermath of a romantic fallout, Bnxn taps into the Afrofusion-esque tendency to borrow from hither and thither. The curiously titled Pidgin & English samples a handful of lines from No Regrets (2016) by the Canadian reggae-fusion band MAGIC! “Before we lose everything we have tomorrow/ Can we forget what went wrong yesterday,” goes a line from the North American band, adding to the mood of contrition. The title refers to the misunderstanding that causes a couple to fall out. This misunderstanding stems from their speaking different love languages, or as Bnxn puts it idiomatically: “Na Pidgin and English I dey speak, you know I hear you speaking Japanese.”
“I can’t blame it on no serpent,” Bnxn sings in Regret, where you’ll find the album’s most exciting feature in 2Baba. Bnxn isn’t citing his hypothetical duel with Medusa, but rather the Fall of Adam and Eve. Unlike those denuded two, Bnxn takes responsibility for his missteps; he feels remorse for bungling a former love affair, the yearning in his voice suggesting a forlorn hope that he might get a second chance. 2Baba gives language to that hope: “I wan start afresh, clean slate.”
There are Biblical allusions elsewhere. It’s instructive that one of the only two songs written in all caps, PRAY, has religious connotations. Bnxn wants you at all times to see the gods in the machinery of his genius. His frequent appeal to the divine gives his secular experience a religious weight.
As with his two EPs, this album is by and large wistful. Even the joyous Party Don’t Stop carries a whiff of sobriety. Using metaphors and allusions, and with his creative borrowings, Bnxn gives sense and sound to an array of sensations, from the joyful, to the tearful and hopeful. To humanize this experience, he puts himself at the center of it, gives you a long spoon, and asks that you partake of the feast of his life. Bon appétit!