Yemi Alade’s ‘Empress’ uses ‘space’ to produce feel-good music [Pulse Album Review]
As a whole, ‘Empress’ is African experience which gleans several African elements in themes and diverse range of Afro-pop.
The album is a follow-up to her 2019 album, Woman of Steel. After her star skyrocketed in 2014 after she released ‘Johnny’ and her debut album, King of Queens, her next two albums, Mama Africa and Black Magic garnered some heavy criticism from Nigerians for the style of music.
At the time, what Alade was building was a Pan-African audience with heavy pro-black identity and cultural heritage. In 2019, ‘Woman of Steel’ got much better acclaim from critics. It also produced a short film, Home as well as ‘Shekere’ featuring the legendary Angelique Kidjo. ‘Woman of Steel’ has been swiftly followed up with Empress.
While the musicality and creative nodes of ‘Empress’ are much higher, ‘Woman of Steel’ is a better album. Nonetheless, the expansive and thick melodies of ‘Empress’ are perfectly suited to a live experience. Ergo, if you don’t enjoy the album on streaming platforms, you will enjoy it when you hear a live rendition of it.
Similarly, ‘Empress’ has ‘Grammy move’ written all over it. From its artwork, Yemi Alade ties into the tokenized perception of ‘astute Africanism’ that the Recording Academy enjoys. The height of this tokenism is ‘Rain’ featuring Mzansi Youth Choir. For Alade, it’s persuasive.
At the recently concluded 2021 Grammy Nominations, she announced over six categories across two fields.
Like Burna Boy, her brand is unrepentantly African. Alongside Brymo, Adekunle Gold, Patoranking, Flavour and The Cavemen, her brand speaks a language that would resonate with the Academy. She has also seen it all and done it all, going for a Grammy should be hot on her list.
However, ‘Rain’ is awfully reminiscent of Burna Boy’s ‘Wonderful.’ It will get you the Recording Academy’s attention for its template, but at what cost? We can’t let white people and Americans tell us how to be African.
Nonetheless, the overall musicality of ‘Empress’ excels on its impressive use of what Jon Caramonica of the New York Times calls “space.” In between melodies, Alade’s producers - as aided by her presumably European sound engineers - appropriately explore and broaden the range of each melody.
The greatest example of the impressive use of space on ‘Empress’ is ‘Mami-Water.’ The Afro-pop record deftly employs a Highlife brand of guitar experimentation. The music feels heavily tailored to a European audience.
As a whole, ‘Empress’ is African experience which gleans several African elements in themes and diverse range of Afro-pop. Topically, it explores different aspects of love and emotion - be it in from the perspective of kinship as heard on ‘Rain’ or romance as heard on the others songs on the album.
‘Mami-water’ is a Nigerian concept of a mermaid. Nigerians use it to describe beautiful women or a beautiful woman who is possessed by the spirit of Poseidon. At its root is the appreciation and appraisal of a beauty of a light-skinned African woman.
‘Lose My Mind’ reminds of echoes of J Martins and a slight evolution of the P Square sound in the late-2000s. While it features French rapper, Vegedream, the song is African in its expression of love, its language of delivery and even visuals.
But the sudden rush of instrumentation between 2:12 and 2:30 might betray this argument. What a rush, that was... Props to the producer.
‘Dancina’ sees Alade dabble into a fundamental Ghanaian sound. The beat will get anybody to move, but the sound seems slightly dated. Alade could have done with a Ghanaian artiste to help her cause on this record though.
‘Boyz’ was released as a single and rightly so. But Terry G or Timaya could have taken this song to another level. It’s still a good song though.
‘Control’ makes the ‘Boyz’ sound seem overflogged. If ‘Boyz’ had made the album, ‘Control’ should have been cut. ‘Temptation’ features Patoranking. Built on sexual innuendo, Patoranking absolutely aces his verse with Alade’s apt set up upon her opening act. ‘Deceive’ is one of the best bits of music on this album, alongside ‘Mami-water.’
The Ghanian percussion is aided by an Afro-pop melody and Electronic chop that forms its hook. Alade tells the story of deception in love and has the perfect feature in Rudeboy for this song - he plays the ‘deceptive’ lover and the song becomes a conversation.
The beautiful thing is how Alade can put such a sensitive topic on such feel-good music. Kudos for this, Yemi. This is a great record and it should be a single.
Aside from ‘Boyz, ‘Mami-water,’ Lose My Mind’ and ‘Deceive,’ a lot of songs on ‘Empress’ show a lot of promise, but not the allure of those four songs, where Yemi Alade absolutely got it right.
Some of the imperfections are down to how she delivers her music like an Afro-pop artiste. That’s not a problem, but the overt obsession with certain adlibs and expletives distract listeners from the stories she tells.
An example is on ‘Deceive.’ She tells a story of deception in love, but just as she was going in we heard, “We dey ponpololo… I dey mgbongbo…” Her songwriting is definitely improved, but the delivery of some of those songs does not exactly strike the right accord with the human hormones of appreciation.
Songs like ‘Yo Yo Yo’ and ‘Turn Up’ tow the same path as the maligned Yemi Alade record. They are built on guitar-rich Highlife music from South-East Nigeria, but the stories that could accompany it weren't compelling enough.
When Flavour N’abania or Harrysong have handled this sound in the past, they succeeded because their thoughts stuck. Alade’s lines are not sticking as she tries to tell a story. Her attempt to create playful scenarios of teen-esque longing isn’t matched in the music. The same thing can be said about the Dancehall track, ‘Ice.’
At the end of the day, Alade achieves her goal of producing music a deluge of feel-good pop records that resonate with her African brand, but the overall quality of the ‘Empress’ as an album isn’t top quality. The album could also have been aided by better album sequencing.
‘True Love’ should not be an album opener and ‘Deceive’ shouldn’t have that that late on in the album.
That said, ‘Weekend’ arguably the most-balanced record on ‘Empress’ and the reason is because it does away with all the excesses and present Yemi Alade’s plus points. Estelle also aids her cause with a good verse. But right after that is the relative staleness of ‘Double Double’ as regards Yemi Alade’s discography. And that sums ‘Empress’ up.
But for the life of me, Yemi Alade can sing… like really sing. Jesus!
• 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: 1.0/2
Songwriting and Themes: 1.2/2
Enjoyability and Satisfaction: 1.0/2
5.9 - Average
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