Buoyed by Afrobeats producer Sarz’ nostalgic, ’80s-influenced production, the Nigerian-born, London-based singer turns his attention to romance, exploring a gentler side of his voice.
On last year’s soul-baring Which Way Is Forward?, Obongjayar brought a light touch to weighty subjects like racism, war, and the desperation of making ends meet. One of the most striking things about that record is how the Nigerian-born, London-based artist, aka Steven Umoh, manages to express such lofty ideas with such graceful economy. He has a poetic ear—“The night had us drinking soap/To wash off the ugly,” he sings on “Frens”—and an angelic voice, husky and sweet.
But Sweetness, a four-track EP with Afrobeats producer Sarz, whose credits include records with WizKid, Drake, and Skepta, shows a different side of the singer. The most immediate difference is thematic: In place of songs about self-knowledge and social ills, Obongjayar turns his attention to romance. He rhapsodizes about a lover on the title track, his voice slipping into falsetto as he sings, “Taste like strawberry, mango, pineapple juice,” tapping into the age-old conceit of comparing an object of affection with inanimate objects. On “Gone Girl,” he bemoans the growing distance between himself and his partner: “Baby, lately when I hold you, you’re/Missing, I wish you were here,” he sings mournfully, before slipping into a ghostly chorus whose repetition of the word “zombie” faintly echoes Fela Kuti’s incendiary classic.
But the more important changes are stylistic. Obongjayar’s husky voice has mellowed, developing a whispery flourish. Perhaps that’s a reflection of his newfound vulnerability, or perhaps it’s a response to Sarz’ influence. On previous records, Obongjayar favored minimalist production that made voice the center of attention. But Sarz’ beats, while smooth, are more muscular. In taking over the console, Sarz has allowed Obongjayar to stretch out and explore the nuances of his voice.
The mood is surprisingly nostalgic. The first three songs borrow heavily from ’80s R&B. “Sweetness” is built around chiming keys and staccato synth bass; the moodier “Gone Girl” loops Obongjayar’s falsetto around a slow yet driving 4/4 beat; “If You Say” sounds inspired by early Sade. But the closing “Nobody” breaks from the template. Sarz’ crisp percussion returns to the fore, balancing dembow syncopations with a steady house groove. The change in style seems to have had a liberating effect on Obongjayar, who rises to the occasion with some of his most playful verses on the record, lyrically (“Body like sin/She put it on me/She make an angel catch a felony”) but also tonally, as he dances around the spaces in the beats. If Sweetness’ first three tracks sent Obongjayar and Sarz looking to the past for inspiration, on “Nobody” they are doing what both do best: mapping out a new musical future.