From his stellar debut in 2019 – which ushered him into a class of artists that exist on the bleeding edge of afrobeats – it was clear Alpha P was one to watch. Since then, he's racked up pretty laudable feats: dropped two EPS, got signed to a juggernaut label, bagged a couple of international collaborations, and more recently, worked on two film projects. At just 19 and with the world at his feet, Alpha P is a young kid making grown moves in a cutthroat industry.
If XXL made a Nigerian Freshman Class in 2019, Alpha P would be front and centre, and for good reason. Making his debut that year with the genre-mashing King of Wolves EP, it was clear the then 17-year-old was destined for greatness. Making the storied trek to Lagos to chase his dreams went pretty much how most people would expect: he spent time on multiple couches and floors, stuck around recording setups hoping for a chance to lay his vocals, and sought out favours from fellow professionals, all to achieve mainstream popularity. Two years later, he is signed to possibly the most prominent record label on the planet and has featured on records and projects alongside music heavyweights.
Walking into the Universal office, I was met by his team, and instantly, most of my preconceptions were cleared up. The units responsible for his branding and music all work closely with him, explaining his entire product’s cohesion.
The impending release of the 33-year-old sequel of the cult classic, Coming 2 America, steadily generated buzz in our news cycles for close to two months. With the film out now in all its dark-skinned glory, people are paying attention to the team(s) of creatives that helped bring this production to life. The movie spawned two individual albums: Rhythms of Zamunda, and the eponymous soundtrack album. A host of talents from Nigeria appeared on the former and delivered an all-African experience on the project – Alpha P is one of such contributors.
Born Princewill Emmanuel, Alpha P grew up in Edo state for most of his formative years and started creating music as an amateur in 2013 at the tender age of 11. His first step to transitioning into professional music was picking a genre to focus his energy on. Coming up as a rapper in Benin because it was admittedly “much cooler”, he decided to pivot to more rhythmic genres such as Afrobeat and Afropop. The second step was moving from Benin. Growing up in smaller Nigerian cities limits not only your options but often your scope. If you manage to grow up without any of those hindrances, the goal is usually to make it out of that environment in search of advancement. And that sentiment informed his move in 2019. Already friends with the (formerly) Mavin-signed Afropop twins, DNA, he reached out to them before jumping ship, and they wound up letting him sleep on their mum’s couch until they moved to their own space. Finding your feet in a city such as Lagos is as challenging as developing third-world states. Driven by high living costs and uncertainty, the city can often feel like an inhabitable jungle to escape from instead of a hotbed that harnesses talent. “I was lying my ass off every time someone from home would reach out to find out how I was doing at the time,” he shares.
No stranger to the city itself, he had already begun building his portfolio with performances within and outside Lagos. His first appearance at the Felabration Festival in 2017 was a set-list of unreleased songs. He embraced the uncertainty of the moment, and in turn, the crowd responded by rocking with it. “I had no idea how people would respond, but a bunch of people had tried, and they didn’t get booed, so I decided I would too,” he recalls.
Six months into his adventure, he had moved couches and floors a few times, but the process did not truly get underway until he met his manager, Jay Breeze, through a mutual friend. Not exactly looking to get signed at the time, he was introduced to Bizzle Osikoya, popularly known as “The Plug” in music industry circles, who heard his music and instantly resonated with it. “That’s who put my music in Universal’s hands,” Alpha adds. The label reached out to him shortly after, and they had similar opinions as Bizzle did. It didn’t take long for the budding superstar to realize the potential of his trajectory once he aligned with a machine the size of Universal, and he decided to sign up with the label. Almost immediately, his music started to gain more traction.
His first official single, “Number One”, came at the tail end of 2019 and was followed a month later by his debut EP, aptly titled King of Wolves. The second track from the project, “Paloma”, became his biggest song and a bonafide hit from the Afropop genre all 2019. A year later, it received the remix treatment from DJ Tunez and D3an, a mark of the timelessness the record possesses. Despite his debut EP’s success, his follow-up project, Wolves & Mustangs, struck more personal chords with his audiences for honing in on the general state of affairs worldwide. Being stuck indoors for a quarter of the year allowed Alpha to focus his energies on his feelings and capture many of the emotions people struggled to accept at the time. The lead single, “Quarantine”, seemed too on-the-nose at the time of release as many people did not (and still don’t) enjoy interacting with content themed around the virus or its resulting consequences. Regardless of the sentiment, the song became a standout from the 10-minute EP, propelling the rest of the tape to playlist greatness. Discussing how he put the project together in the middle of a pandemic, he says: “Technically, Wolves and Mustangs was a freestyle project. I really just felt like putting it together, and I ran with it. Luckily the label loved it.”
Similar to his music, Alpha operates with a significantly developed brand identity. From the canine motifs to his visual representation, the attention to detail shines through. Speaking on how he came to pick this particular direction for his look, he highlights his childhood and the source of his influence. “I really loved wolves growing up. I mean, I'm still in love with them, just as creatures. I’m fascinated by the fact that they move in packs, and in many ways, that tells my story. I moved here without having a lot of friends. I'm a sociable person, but I’m also very laid-back, and I try to stay muted in new environments till I figure them out. Trying to find your pack in a city like this is so hard. I’m grateful I found mine.”
While a few of his songs point to emotional discomfort, especially regarding his love life, he is not the romantic his lyrics may paint him to be. “In my music, I talk about being in love a bit, but I have never been in love. Asides from my mum and family, and that doesn’t count as romantic.” he shares. However, this does not exclude any listeners from enjoying the tunes; it does the opposite. His quarantine tape is chock full of humanizing lyrics, providing a relatability often missing from routine Afropop records. “I try to have really broad messaging because there’s a lot of stuff I want to talk about. I think the music is super relatable. That’s why kids listen to it; that’s why 30+ people listen to it. I feel like I study people a lot. I’m not super social, so I prefer to gauge people from a distance before engaging. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what people feel.” he shares.
His artistic development was aided by something most amateur artists would consider a constraint: the mental and financial gymnastics required to secure studio time. For Alpha, being unable to record many of his earliest songs simply meant he could aggressively improve other parts of his craft, and his songwriting was better for it. One of the more muted aspects of his career, his songwriting portfolio belies his years and experiences. Appearing on Tiwa Savage’s album as a contributor points to the fact. “I think I got better at songwriting growing up in Benin. I couldn't afford to record a lot of the time. I was in uni for a year, and I got like 10,000 naira weekly for my upkeep – sessions used to cost 7,000 naira. I survived on the rest till the week would end.” he reveals. “So it makes sense that I developed that. I’m glad to have the opportunity to do that for other people, like on Tiwa’s album, for example, I did some work on that.”
Nominated at the recent 14th Headie Awards under the coveted Rookie of the Year category, gave Alpha the equally coveted opportunity to rock a stage in front of his peers and other industry heavyweights during the eased lockdown. His commanding performance helped highlight his growing stage presence, something he’s been paying closer attention to since opportunities to perform became increasingly limited. “I did the Capital Block Party last year in Abuja. Bizzle helped set that up too. I had never been to Abuja before that, but I came out to so much love. Just hearing the crowd sing my shit acapella meant a lot. I barely had any music out at the time, too, but I had hundreds of people singing the entire tape word for word,” he says.
Some of the more recent attention the young artist is enjoying happened due to a little thing I call providence. According to him, he had not reached out to frequent collaborator TMXO for a while. When he did, and they reconnected, he received a few beats from the producer without any information on their use. A week later, he had recorded on two, and he got a call from TMXO. “He hit me up and told me ‘you might hear from some Def Jam people about working on Coming 2 America’ and a couple of days later, someone called my team. The label didn’t even know,” he recounts. “Jiggy Bop”, the resulting single, was selected alongside a slew of Afrocentric songs from across the continent for the Rhythms of Zamunda album. Appearing alongside Tiwa Savage, Tekno, Nasty C, Ari Lennox, and Diamond Platinumz on the project might not seem like a lo. Still, moves like this cement an artist’s credibility in a scene with cutthroat competition. Not to mention the relevance of working on a project that spoke to many black kids growing up in the ‘90s and early 2000s.
Scaling the financial constraints that hinder many in this hemisphere at such a young age can raise many questions internally and externally. A (not so) lesser-known fact about Alpha P is he came up with Rema in Benin; the pair were members of the same band. Three years later, they are kicking ass and taking names in the same industry, albeit by different routes. The role a major like Universal has played in the careers of many up-and-comers cannot be understated; the ability to tap into a network grown over decades and continents is invaluable. Asking an artist signed to a label (in said label’s building) if they feel like they could have made it independently is dicier than I imagined. “I don’t feel like the label is an assurance for anything, honestly. The resources are great, yes. But that doesn't mean anything if the product isn't good. Labels lose money too,” he says pointedly.
He shares some of his post-lockdown plans for music and his personal development earnestly, pacing himself as he goes through his schemes, and it’s easy to tell how important taking his time is. “So much has happened in such a short time, and I try not to take that for granted. As much as I work, I also try to remember I'm 19, and that shit happens once. Keeping that mindset is important for my balance,” he reveals. Staying grounded is key to growth, and he reminds himself every day. While the attention from his side projects is welcome, working on new music is the priority. Plans for a few singles and another EP are in full tilt, and with the expectations of an expanding audience to be met, Alpha will need all the help he can get to keep his adventure alive.
Featured image credits: Tobi Tej