Johnny Drille’s ‘Before We Fall Asleep’ is worth its ‘wait’ in needed evolution [Pulse Album Review]

'SWEET AS A MOTHER'S LOVE' is simply amazing.

Johnny Drille releases debut album, 'Before We Fall Asleep.' (MAVIN)

Johnny Drille has three types of listeners; his core fans, mostly made up of ludicrously beautiful women, cynics who ask questions and middle grounders, who are neither core fans nor cynics.

There are no ordinary Johnny Drille fans. They are either stans or nothing. To them, whatever he does is like the second coming of Abijawara’s ‘cell phone’ conversations with the mythical Ajan.

The cynics focus on the perceived weaknesses of his music while the middle grounders - where most critics belong - weigh both the positives - that cynics can’t see - and the negatives - to which his stans are Ray Charles.

This is usually the situation with any artist who makes music that can move people, but the ‘Johnny Drille situation’ is peculiar. Music from the Abuja-bred, University of Benin alum, has a tendency to elicit a reaction from a listener like a truth serum or Mother Confessor’s coercion.

In the earlier days, cynics and some middle grounders - like this writer - would always question some of the perceived weaknesses of his artistry, that were glossed over by supposed ‘uniqueness,’ in a singles market, populated by a soon-to-be-global Afro-pop genre - or lamba, as it were.

Some of these reservations weren’t exactly unfounded. Despite his uniqueness, there always seemed a supposed possibility that Drille was ‘obsessed’ with remaining in his comfort zone, while remaining ‘unique’ as an attractive outlier, instead of engaging in much needed sonic experimentation and sonic expansion, that could have made him 'sell out' or 'blend in,' albeit opening his music to a wider audience much earlier.

His music seemed cut from a particular Folk/Alternative/Alt-pop/Synth Pop/Sentimental Ballad sonic cloth, which created a mystique around him, from the pop-obsessed Nigerians. And he ran with it, either by being himself or by being aware enough of his 'uniqueness.'

He also became the Enya of his generation; the act whom people showed off, to make themselves look cool and sophisticated.

To be fair, some of the music deserved some plaudits. His music was so well-received that he went from a social media sensation to regularly selling out Muri Okunola park for his yearly concert. Which is no mean feat in Nigeria.

Those concerts were particularly attractive for people like this writer because of the beautiful array of expensively assembled, sophisticated black women. Yet, the music always felt ‘safe,’ like it needed some flavour - not Ijele - or another dimension.

Maybe that polarizing tendency makes 'great art' out of Drille's music. As Jay Z told The Breakfast Club in 2013, "Great art is polarizing."

He did feature on a record with Chinko Ekun, and produced and/or engineered ‘Jaiye’ for LadiPoe, but the range that people like this writer yearned for only came with ‘Mystery Girl.’ But by then, another issue was afoot. After five years at MAVIN Records, Drille had not released a single body of work - a stain on a supposed ‘genius’ CV.

The man, whom many around him have described as a ‘cerebral perfectionist’ belatedly released his debut album, Before We Fall Asleep on September 3, 2021. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s worth the ‘wait’ in Drille’s needed evolution.

After taking multiple listens, enough to give Drille a mouthache, but to strip away the last vestiges of expectations and possible preconceived emotions, this writer can say that ‘Before We Fall Asleep’ is one of Nigeria’s best albums of 2021. It deftly, creatively and sweetly blended the evolution of who Drille was with what he needed to be.

The result is 43 minutes of sweet, well A&Red music, from the depths of maligned, ‘perfectionist’ creativity. Here Johnny Drille stands, stripping away all the cliche corniness and replacing them with range and bravado. Through his eyes, his ears and his music, we can see that he and/or his team listens and takes in advice.

More importantly, his background as a songwriter, an engineer and music producer is reflected in a high-calibre replay value, supported by quality album sequencing. While the album could have done without records like ‘LOST IN THE RHYTHM’ and possibly, even ‘SISTER,’ Drille was so in form on this album that both songs are still spectacular records. Especially the socio-politically charged, ‘LOST IN THE RHYTHM.’

The album just wouldn't have missed them if they were not listen.

‘SISTER’ feels like a product of a minimalist, excessive need to be arty, but the rudimentary art of music making reflects in its eccentric composition.

Topically, Drille still focuses on the good - and bad - sides of love and romance, but there are edges. When he sings about the good sides of love, he has evolved into an artist who is less concerned about deathly obsession with writing 'powerful lyrics,' into an artist who finds a way to express the depth of amiable emotions with the least of perceivable effort.

While ‘LIES’ can seem like a surprise, Drille surprised many - including this writer - with how he delivered it. The record might have been rough around the edges, but it gave ‘Before We Fall Asleep’ some much-needed topical diversity, as did calling his lover “Omo ola” on the Hip-Hop-esque ‘driving in the rain,' which could potentially give him another audience.

He also embraced pop genres in different forms - Afro-pop, Bashment, Afro-Fusion, Pon Pon and Afro-Fusion in seven of the opening 10 records. While ‘Odo,’ ‘Ova’ and especially ‘Ludo’ are heavily rooted in Pop, Drille’s Alternative origins reflect an R&B element, which elevates the pop experience.

The R&B/Bashment element of ‘Harder’ feels like something an Afroswing act like B Young could have made. When he makes lamba, there are attractive, coherent lyrics, supported by Pidgin and Idiosyncratic Nigerian English and enunciation. He even uses a pop culture reference like ‘Odo,’ to increase the attraction of his music, without losing his core folksy identity.

It feels like he embodies different artists on some of these tracks. On a track like ‘Ova,’ Drille sounds like Popcaan and on some other tracks - especially ‘Odo,’ he sounds like Wurld.

All the while, Drille is a reluctant dweller of the spectacle, even on his own album. There is then the experimentation - mostly - at the end of certain tracks. They elevate the experience for the audience.

Some of those instances are; the guitars on ‘Clocks,’ the trumpets on ‘Sell My Soul,’ the backing vocals on ‘Odo,’ the guitar solo and then Afrobeats trumpets [a tribute to Fela’s activism], at the end of the socio-politically charged ‘LIES,’ and then the horns on ‘Over.’

The satisfaction that those moments emit is similar to the one produced by Slash’s guitar solo on ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine,’ albeit on a much reduced, but equally euphoric level. There’s also the effortless genre bending and switches on ‘My Kind of Brown.

While arty moments like the XXXTentacion-esque titling or featuring Lagos Community Gospel Choir occasionally overflogs Drille’s tendency for cerebral artiness, in a bid to stand out, this is a good album, with little weaknesses.

Some of those can be the aforementioned ‘fillers,’ or the excessively mysterious album title, ‘Before We Fall Asleep.’ Then, there is ‘SWEET AS MOTHER’S LOVE,’ in its 70’s-esque essence. It deserves a more grand ending, which mirrors singing under the dim lights of a 70’s dingy urban pub.

When it’s all said and done, this writer feels tempted to say that; someone like Johnny Drille should have produced whatever Drake was trying to do on ‘Fountains’ and that Johnny Drille and Wurld owe fans an EP. In fact, as incredible as Styl-Plus were on ‘Odo,’ the record was screaming for Wurld.

'SWEET AS A MOTHER'S LOVE' is simply amazing.

Ratings: /10

• 0-1.9: Flop

• 2.0-3.9: Near fall

• 4.0-5.9: Average

• 6.0-7.9: Victory

• 8.0-10: Champion

Pulse Rating: /10

Album Sequencing: 1.8/2

Themes and Delivery: 1.7/2

Production: 1.7/2

Enjoyability and Satisfaction: 1.6/2

Execution: 1.5/2

Total:

8.4 - Champion

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