With a warm touch arrived the announcement of Simi’s partnership with the London-based Platoon, Apple’s artist-development subsidiary which “offers advances, distribution, and support to African artists”. The artist follows the continent’s pop stars making artistic and economic efforts to appeal to a broader audience. Restless II, however, isn’t pandering as Simi’s artistry has been about developing since forever. To get some context, let’s go to 2008 when the life of Simisola Ogunleye was quite different from today.
A grungy video on YouTube is a reminder of the quality of phone cameras at the time. On the stage, a frame is only visible but the voice –that of Simi– is the tinny embrace we have come to know so well. In 2008 Simi released Oga Ju, an album made of emotive ballads weaned from 2000s everyday life, romantic relationships, and the Gospel. A Christlike dedication to move her audience permeates the titular record. Iya Temi, a mother’s praise song, is evoked from bright guitar strings and Asa comes to the mind. This medley of Asa’s Bibanke and Don’t Judge Me suggests some influence or at least admiration. Riding to marching percussion tracks like Crazy About You and Love Me compresses the swagger of rap. Precocious, her artistry needed mentoring. She signed her first record deal with Steve Babaeko’s X3M Music in 2014 and found the necessary structure to push her talent and entry into Nigeria’s mainstream pop market.
Although her early career had only been attended by few, six years from ’08, the next phase had kicked off and Tiff demonstrates what that meant. Simi, with a poet’s eye for detail which complemented her voice in creating dramatic and ultimately cathartic experiences, inched closer to her present formation. It’s no surprise E No Go Funny was the second single from 2014, the year preceding the big break. X3M Music proved competent in the background work and Simi leaned into an experiential direction for her sound, showing rather than telling, present in situations rather than being the omniscient narrator.
Her sophomore affair Simisola is rightly considered a modern classic, cut from peerless records like Smile For Me, Original Baby, and Remind Me, some of her finest composition on love, a favored theme of hers. Working with Oscar Heman-Ackah introduced the stripped folksy sound on which Simi’s vocals thrived. To an audience comprised primarily of Nigerians, this sound marked their introduction to the artist. Awards –most notably the Headies Award for ‘Album of the Year’– and the generally positive critical reception portends the biggest iteration of Simi, even till today.
If Simisola was growth as a person and artist, this marked by the gesture of naming the tape after herself, then Simi’s third album Omo Charlie Champagne is the familial nod to one’s history, titled after a father who died in the year she snagged her first record deal. Champagne opens to a heart-wrenching ode that compresses all her hurt. As the album progresses, so do the merrier times come and by the third song, Patoranking is present for a ride to the Dancehall. Further along, it’s Falz who turns in a verse for “Mind Your Business,” a hilarious treatise on their rumored relationship. Her range was improving, that much was obvious: Simi still does the ballads only she’s also now aware of dance floors. And leveraging her star power in newer ways. The girl next door, clearly, was now a superstar. And still turning that wheel of reinvention, even more eagerly.
For artists, returning to the past is common. A step backward for two forward happens here. Restless II, even with 16 minutes, is thematically and sonically realized in ways Oga Ju couldn’t; and idealized and confident, unlike Champagne, which overtly plays to Nigerian tropes. Here she stretches herself –to the present, the past, and the future, all at once.
“She [Simi] felt it was time for her to express herself in a different light and she took it seriously,” said close friend and music producer Sess. “It’s very easy to get boxed in this industry where people just want you to be a certain way and you kinda get stuck in a sound. This is not about devaluing the experiences from what she’s been doing but creating new experiences. As a producer I always pride myself on pushing people, helping artists experience that next level.” Sess met the artist sometime in 2016. He was working with Falz and produced most of Stories That Touch (2015). The following year he was behind the boards for all the records on Falz and Simi’s joint album Chemistry. “Simi is a producer so I didn’t have to help with the recording, mixing or the mastering –she did that herself,” Sess, who produced four songs on Restless II, remarked on the creation process. “Also, being a songwriter she had the songs written; she had ideas for them. All she did was send me what she did and I had to create music around them. It was like a division of labor thing.”
Oscar Heman-Ackah produced the other songs on the tape. The intimacy of working from home during a global lockdown and with friends undergirds the tape as well as global influences: synth-heavy EDM and Pop influences are embedded and Nigerian UK rapper Ms. Banks features. Radiant synths situate Simi’s vocals on NO LONGER BENEFICIAL, racked with ingenious turns of phrases and a razor-sharp delivery. The gaudy stuff of heterosexual romance makes the project, the juicy insides of a fried turkey. Standouts include UNDESERVING and BITES THE DUST and every other song is a big flex on the ears, glittering production matched by highly structured writing and resounding vocals. Contemporary icon WurlD even comes through with a memorable verse. Dust, following the tradition of duets with hubby Adekunle Gold, proves the dramatic closer. “You said I set you up when you no be dog o/ You could have said no,” Simi sings in reprimand to a cheating partner. Adekunle Gold had made a case in the first verse but she wasn’t having it. Their mellifluous voices set to Sess’ soulful synths portends a sound in sync with what Simi needs right now: experimentation which doesn’t stray from her strengths as much as it builds on it.
All her career, Simi has been progressing towards this: a body of work which retains the texture of her musical identity yet so experimental it could be a Scandinavian album or a record off the US alternative charts. It is inspiring and necessary. Especially, as Sess said, in an entertainment ecosystem that prides acceptability and cliché over artistic freedom.
Find him at odd places arguing for the greatness of the contemporary. Published by lit mags such as Brittle Paper and The Kalahari Review, he is certain that he is destined to write The Great Ajegunle novel. Emmanuel Esomnofu is also a widely published music journalist and he is fascinated by all things Hip Hop and Reggae.