From obscurity to global superstar, Davido has nothing left to prove.
The ebullient, triumphant horns blaring on “FEM” – the Napji-produced, self-assured anthemic opener on Davido’s fourth album, A Better Time – imply an artist who is irrepressible, confident in his craft and basking in the well-earned limelight; the very elements that perfectly encapsulate Davido. Born David Adedeji Adeleke, the 28-year-old father of three is among a class of artists that have catapulted the African dance-pop genre to international heights, dominating global stages and airwaves alike and firmly making his mark as one of the continent’s biggest pop stars. The singer first popped up back in 2011 – a time when the old guard of music stars was slowly waning and a new crop of fresh, young talent was gearing up for a takeover. Since then, he has constantly dwelt at the crest of the Afrobeats food chain, delivering earworm numbers that have gone on to become the feelgood soundtrack of Nigerian nightlife.
On Friday, May 7, 2021, Davido marked his 10th anniversary at the forefront of an entire generation of Afropop superstars – precisely a decade since he sprung onto the scene with his infectious upbeat Naeto-C assisted hit, “Back When”. “Many have come before, many will come after BUT nobody will do it the way @/davido has done it,” Asa Asika, his manager and longtime friend, tweeted in celebration of this milestone. By Nigerian music industry standards, ten years is an impressively long time to stay in the game. But ten years firmly fixated atop the food chain? Now that’s quite the hurdle. You see, music fans can be very fickle. Hits are unpredictable; artistes rarely ever know what song will top the charts because it’s hard to tell how an audience will react – there’s no direct formula to it. Hence, longevity in a career such as this could be rather tricky to manoeuvre. So how does one retain such a level of relevance over a decade? When posed with this question during his BlackBox Interview, Davido himself struggled to find a clear answer. Instead, he settled for an audacious – but factual – admission: “Honestly, nobody’s like me. There will never be another Davido.”
Indeed. It’s hard to imagine a replica of the Afropop streaming juggernaut gracing our ears anytime soon – or ever. Looking back at his first foray into the spotlight, not many can say they predicted this level of superstardom from the scrawny kid who released a club banger filled with questionable truths about his familial background. And that’s understandable; greatness of this calibre doesn’t come by so often. A lifetime of achievements – 800m+ YouTube views, 1B+ streams, a plethora of awards across the globe, multiple gold and platinum certifications and a Time100 Next listing – later and Davido is an undeniably irreplaceable figure in Afrobeats history. Additionally, his buoyantly expressive personality and exuberant sense of humour have become an unshakeable part of pop culture from these parts in the last decade; you can’t not love him. Ten years (and four studio albums) deep, he’s undoubtedly surpassed the level of attempting to solidify his place among the most influential African acts of all time – any impending efforts will only further assure it indisputably.
On the 22nd of July, 2012, dignitaries, superstars and fans alike trooped en masse to the renowned Eko Hotel and Suites to witness the launch of Omo Baba Olowo – Davido’s debut album. Dbanj and Naeto C – two of the country’s biggest artists at the time – also graced the event, both delivering an enthralling and energetic performance. After their performance, D’banj re-introduced Davido on stage, belting his popular saying: “If you’re still sitting down, you're on a long thing!” The crowd went wild. While the hysteric response was mainly due to D’banj’s unbridled pizzazz and famous words, there was almost an undertone of uniformed acceptance in the crowd’s reaction – if you were still sleeping on Davido, you were on a long thing.
A couple of years before this, a 16-year-old Davido was enrolled in Oakwood University studying to be a business administrator. Living in Alabama at the time, he didn’t have much knowledge of the music bubbling back home. While he shuffled Nigeria and Atlanta as a kid, he never really engrossed himself in the music coming out of Nigeria. While in university, he mostly relied on his cousins, who constantly introduced him to the new artists making waves in the Nigerian music scene back then. After a year in university, he flew back home for a Christmas break, and that’s when he finally paid attention, eventually falling in love with the music. He implored his dad – Adedeji Adeleke, a business tycoon and Nigerian Billionaire – to allow him to stay back, to make music, but he would not have it.
Arriving back to school in Alabama, he brought the passion and rush he had developed for music over the break with him. He immediately purchased studio equipment and started recording for a bunch of Jamaicans that he regularly hung out with. After some time, he began recording his own demos, sending them out to various artists. Eventually, he put out his own music, which earned him a fair amount of buzz, dropped out of school, moved back to Nigeria and started performing in a handful of club gigs, all without his father’s knowledge.
On getting to Nigeria, he reconnected with an old friend, Asa Asika, who would become his first manager. The decision to partner with Asa seemed like a no-brainer: he was well connected with Storm 360 Records, one of the premier record labels in the country. He had also been working with a crop of top artists – YQ, R2bees and Naeto C – before Davido’s arrival. Their partnership and friendship would prove pivotal as Asa’s connections and indelible knowledge of the music scene coupled with Davido’s hunger and unbridled talent would catapult them both to unimaginable heights.
“Back When”, his self-produced official debut single, came shortly after reconnecting with Asa. According to him, the groovy, dynamic record that featured Naeto C did what it was supposed to do. While it wasn’t necessarily the biggest song in the country, it became a sleeper hit of some sorts, making the rounds on the radio, TV, and clubs. The song was relatively popular; however, the face behind it wasn’t. Davido still remained largely anonymous.
When his billionaire dad eventually caught a whiff of his actions, he sent law enforcement after him, trying to get a hold of his son. Davido would spend months getting arrested, ducking the police and making music all at the same time. Then came the career-defining “Dami Duro”, his second official single that fully thrust him into the limelight. The opening lines of the song: “E ma dami duro / Emi omo baba olowo” – which loosely translates to “Don’t stop me, I’m the son of a rich man” – was his response to the prior months’ events. Indeed, he became unstoppable. ‘Dami Duro’ became ubiquitous and so did Davido. His dynamic and energetic performance coupled with Shizzi’s scintillating beat arrested every dancefloor, airwave and speaker. The entire country had their ears tuned to him. Eventually, he met with his dad and they reached a compromise: he would re-enroll in school – Babcock, a private university located an hour-and-a-half south of Lagos city – on weekdays, and on weekends, he would make music.
Shortly after, he started working on his debut album. He dropped the R&B-tinged, love-centric ‘Ekuro,’ and the flamboyant, hip-hop-inspired ‘Overseas’ (which featured his cousin Sina Rambo) as singles to promote his album, highlighting his versatility. He also brought life to Saucekid’s megahit ‘Carolina’, delivering a memorable hook along the way. He recruited Shizzi (who produced Dami Duro), a talented beatsmith he met while working with Wande Coal back in the days, Maleek Berry, Jay Sleek and a host of other producers for the album. He also secured features from heavyweights like Ice Prince, Naeto C and 2face Idibia. On the 17th of July 2012, he finally released his album, Omo Baba Olowo, but the reception was surprisingly hostile. Davido was heavily criticized for his hoarse singing voice and his lacklustre songwriting skills. At the same time, the standout moments and the largely impressive and infectious production on the album were mildly lauded. Ultimately though, it did not seem to matter. Songs like “Feel Alright”, “Gbon Gbon” and the infamous ‘All of You’ (where he prophesied his career’s trajectory) would all take on a life of their own, further buttressing his initial request: ema dami duro.
The following year, his hot streak continued; he released the Shizzi-produced “Gobe” and “Skelewu”, once again arresting the dancefloors. He sat on top of the charts for weeks, making himself a force to be reckoned with. He ended the year bagging an Headies award for ‘Best R&B & Pop Album’. After receiving the award, he gave a short speech, closing it, saying: “I want to thank the Headies, you guys seated here. God bless you; I won't fail you.” Unknown to Davido, not only would he not fail us, he would go ahead to shatter the glass ceiling.
"I don't like the EP, but I won't say I regret it."
The word “more” constantly occupies the headspace of creatives of any kind. The need to surpass previous work and create even more excellent work is an ever-present sentiment. For musicians, this is probably even truer than most due to the fluidity of music as an art form and the multiple avenues it provides artistes to innovate.
A key reason for this is relevance. In a volatile industry that demands an unceasing presence from artistes, relevance is the most important currency. The rise of the internet and all its musical affiliates, most especially streaming sites, means that musicians have to develop creative ways to extend their reign in the industry and increase their visibility. More. At every step of the journey, old things pass away, and thoughts turn to the new. Sing more songs, record more albums, collaborate with more artistes, shoot more videos, do more interviews. There is always a new frontier to conquer, a new sound to tap into, a new scene to dominate.
In the Afrobeats scene, the pinnacle of dominance is the international co-sign. After conquering local audiences and fanbases, the next step is globalization, taking the sound to foreign ears, working with new artists and producers, and assimilating new sounds. Conquering the world is not a novel concept. Throughout history, men have attempted to dominate new lands and leave their mark on many people. In 334 BC, Alexander the Great started his conquest of the world; in the 13th Century, Genghis Khan began his Mongolian conquests. In July 2016, Davido signed a record deal with Sony's RCA Records.
He had signed in the original deal with Sony in January 2016, and in preparation for his exit, Davido set up his record label, Davido Music Worldwide (DMW). As he readied to expand his frontiers, the label was created to solidify his brand and establish something of consequence while he was gone. The first artistes signed to the label were singer Mayorkun and rapper Dremo who quickly became viral and accepted into mainstream circles as their talent showed through their singles. Aside from the need to influence the sounds dominating the local scene, DMW was also an extension of Davido’s belief in generosity and collaboration as factors essential to growth and continuity in the music industry. He signed Mayorkun after the singer uploaded a cover of “The Money,” a single by Davido and Olamide. Dremo’s versatility as a “rapper wey sabi sing” added a new dimension to the label and extending its range past afrobeats to hip hop. This commitment to working with others would eventually be the key to his revival after the fallout from the ill-fated Sony RCA deal.
The goal of the deal was simple: expansion. Davido, at that point, was a high-flying artiste. His debut album was well-received, and he had some hit features as well. His trajectory was going only one way: up. Sony saw the chance to work with him and gobbled it up. The first result of this union was his first and only EP to date, Son of Mercy. The five-track project was supported by two singles and featured guest appearances from Simi, Tinashe, and Nasty C. The project was intended to make Davido appealing to a new set of ears, and the powers that be decided that he needed to tweak his sound for this to happen. What followed was music both Davido and his fans were not accustomed to. It was different, which is not always bad, but it also sounded a bit “forced.” To experimental fans, it was not a bad piece of work. Sure, it seemed like Davido was operating in a space his sound didn’t typically fit in, but innovation and change is rarely a smooth process. To Afrobeats purists and his detractors, it was a horrible mistake. And Davido agreed with them.
Another word that hovers around the music industry is “sellout.” Artistes dread the possibility of compromising their musical style and integrity for financial gain or rewards. But music, despite its artistic value and all the joy it brings to fans, is a business. Artistes are sponsored by record labels who need to recoup their investments. If this means that the music being released has to be watered-down from whatever the original vision is to popular and mainstream sounds. Finding the balance between commercial viability and musical integrity is a real dilemma for artistes. Some, like Kanye West, have managed to break through by disrupting the mainstream with their sound, while others have not been as successful. The problem with this conversation is that the line between being an innovator and being a sellout is very thin. At what point does an artiste go from one interested in blending sounds and experimenting to one who is just trying to get a slice of the pie by jumping to what is hot? Nobody knows.
At the end of the day, what is essential is the artiste being comfortable with whatever they release; it is their art, after all. To Davido, the Son of Mercy era was the worst of his career. The creative differences between him and the suits upstairs were apparent; in his Bounce BlackBox interview with compere Ebuka, he said, “They wanted me to sound like something I wasn’t.” Going abroad to record with new artistes and producers was uncomfortable for him, akin to a plant yanked by its roots and dropped in alien soil. While his sheer talent and the commercial nature of the songs were enough to put them in the consciousness of fans and charts, something was missing, the x-factor he was known for bringing to the table, that vitality that turned a good song into a “hit.” On songs like “Gbagbe Oshi'' and “Coolest Kid In Africa,” there was a glimmer, but throughout the project, a flatness of sorts prevailed, and the first attempt at taking over the world came across as barely enjoyable.
“I don’t like the EP, but I won’t say I regret it because it made me come to Naija...and start doing my normal P,” he continues in reflection.
All dark clouds have silver linings, and according to Thomas Fuller, it is always darkest just before the day dawneth. After he expressed his discontentment and renegotiated his contract with Sony, Davido returned to Nigeria in 2017, and embarked on the most dominant run the Nigerian music scene had ever seen in a calendar year.
That Peerless 2017 Run
Coming off a disappointing 2016, Davido was grossly dissatisfied and ready for redemption. Upon return, one of his first lines of action was reuniting with Asa Asika, his very first manager and an instrumental figure in his rise to fame. Shortly after, he got into the studio with serial hitmaker Tekno who had been hassling him to come for a session. Their session produced “If”, a song that (unknown to Davido at the time) would kickstart the greatest run of his career – and possibly Afrobeats history – so far. “If” was released on the 17th of February 2017, and it caught on almost instantly. Tekno’s minimalist production gave ample room for Davido’s measured, rasp vocals and irresistible melodies. His clever interpolation of lyrics from the Nigerian classic “Gra Gra” by the famous masked musician, Lagbaja also gives the song more flavour. “If” spawned several remakes in the first few months of its release making the song even more ubiquitous. Davido was, however, just warming up.
Four months later, he released arguably the biggest song of his career so far, “Fall”. The Kiddominant-produced record builds on the minimalist, repetitive, soft-hitting synths – mostly in pairs – commonly known as the “pon pon” sound, which whe also employed on “If”. It served as the bedrock for most of Davido’s 2017 efforts. His lyrics here also remain as plain-spoken as possible, pledging loyalty to his love interest as he constantly belts “I don’t wanna be a player no more.” over Kiddominant’s insistent synths. Once again, “Fall” hit the ground running almost immediately, garnering millions of streams in just a couple of days. The accompanying video would hold the title for the most viewed Youtube video by a Nigerian artist – currently at 203 million views and counting. The song would also be certified platinum in South Africa and gold in the United States and Canada.
The next month, the Son Of Mercy Davido resurfaced, releasing “Pere” which featured fellow Atlanta-native Young Thug and the dynamic duo Rae Sremmurd. “Pere” was met with polarizing views, just like most of the music on Son Of Mercy. While some people thought Young Thug and Rae Sremmured’s melodic trap coos didn’t blend well with Davido’s more grungy, croaky inflections, others felt it was a decent collaboration merging two distinct worlds together. Davido won everyone over once again, this time completing the three-peat with the electric and zippy “FIA’ to close out the year. The addictive, neo-highlife-inspired song produced by then-newcomer Fresh VDM had everything. From the infusion of renowned street-hop artist Small Doctor’s popular words, “If you no get money, hide your face”, to the colorful piano loop, down to the clever use of the second verse to address his personal struggles and issues, “FIA” had it all.
Davido became inescapable. He single-handedly defined the zeitgeist of the year. If you didn’t hear him in social functions, TV or radio, his music would still find you in traffic, thumping heavily out of someone’s speakers directly into your ears.
While many thought Davido was done for the year, he had one more trick under his sleeve – “Like Dat”. Combining with long-time collaborator Shizzi once again, they cooked up a record that’s largely considered the most underrated song of his career so far. If Davido crowned his 2017 efforts with a project of some sort, “Like Dat” would probably feature as a bonus or hidden track. It has that feel. While Davido’s astute songwriting and catchy call-and-response hook is as addictive as ever, “Like Dat” never really took off like his other 2017 releases. It, however, didn’t matter
He capped his wonderful run with several nominations for his brilliant efforts from notable award shows. “If” and “FIA” were both nominated for the “Best Pop Single” and “Song Of The Year” categories at the Headies Awards. He also got nominated for the “Artist of the Year” which he eventually won. He bagged the prestigious “Best African Act” award at the BETs the following year for his 2017 efforts and also went home with a couple of awards at the 2017 Europe Music Awards show.
Davido felt vindicated. His decision to go back to the basics paid off massively. He proved he didn’t need to brand himself as something he wasn’t – like he attempted with Son Of Mercy – to capture a wider audience. His originality, coupled with immense desire and hard work, could clearly do that for him.
A Good Time
Stepping into 2018, Davido was as self-assured as ever. Straight off the back of his groundbreaking run #thatyear, Davido was content making music with a less global appeal and ready to cater to his home audience squarely. His return marked a new creative era in his career and the careers of his label mates. He then began expanding the DMW label, recruiting acts like Peruzzi to bolster the already impressive roster of talents. Historically an artist known for his immaculate ear, he began to put his A&R chops to use internally, taking a ground-up in-house approach, which saw many of the signees develop muscles that have grown their stock beyond the expectations he signed them to fulfill. Between Peruzzi penning an album’s worth of hits, Mayorkun becoming the hookman of the decade and Dremo engineering these records with an innate knowledge of what is globally acceptable and what his boss expects, Davido created one of Nigeria’s most successful indigenous labels in half the time it took most of his contemporaries.
The camaraderie between the DMW crew was apparent and they owned the entire year, dishing out posse cuts and collaborations like “Mind,” “Aje,” “Twisted,” “Red-handed,” and “Aza”.
Consolidating the efforts of his excellent 2017 slew of singles into a massive marketing campaign and rollout for his third album, Davido’s A Good Time was perhaps the masterstroke that took him out of the calibre of Nigerian acts who prioritised singles over projects in attempts to maintain relevance without the need for voluminous additions to their catalogues. Led by four singles – two of which were released a full two years before the album’s announcement – the album’s rollout could be considered a purely commercial approach only taken by artists with a point to prove. In many ways, that consideration is accurate, yet it did nothing to remove from the sonic improvements exhibited throughout the LP. Maintaining an entirely African production roster as informed by the singles, Davido’s star-studded lineup of local and international features found new homes in a soundscape imagined entirely in his image. Often described as a purveyor of upbeat alternate realities, Davido’s take on escapism, tailor-made for Nigerians, finally crossed over to a global market with a cohesively prepared product perfectly showcasing his songwriting, production and technical abilities.
Over the course of two years, Davido released an incredible 11 singles, with five of them eventually ending up on the project. An era earmarked by his record-breaking achievements, A Good Time was heralded by a comprehensive audio visual content rollout, videos for “If”, “Fall”, “Fire”, “Like Dat” and “Flora my Flawa” which all helped him achieve feats such as his Best Pop Single and Song of the Year wins for “If” at the Headies, “Fall” emerged as the longest-charting Nigerian pop song in Billboard history two years later as well as becoming the Nigerian music video with the highest number of views within the first 24 hours of its release. Applying a more personal touch to his craft than ever before earned Davido a lot of plaudits, critically and commercially. The release of “Assurance”, a song dedicated to his love for his ex-girlfriend and mother of his first son served as the third single off his album and led to the final phase of his rollout that saw him deliver “Blow my Mind” (that went on to become the most viewed Nigerian music video in a day), and “Risky”, two of his biggest international singles at the time.
Perhaps in an effort to signal his broadest range yet, AGT is aided by Davido’s most diverse plethora of talent yet, guest appearances from Popcaan, Chris Brown, Summer Walker, Gunna A Boogie wit da Hoodie, Dremo, Peruzzi, Zlatan, Yonda, Wurld and Naira Marley point to the fact. As aforementioned, he took a slightly different approach with the production roster on his third album, crediting exclusively African producers for 16 of the 17 tracks that make up the record. Enlisting producers like Speroach Beatz, Shizzi, Kiddominant, and London on da Track, Davido delivered an album that saw major foreign acts perform primarily over our production, further blurring the lines between our soundscapes.
An Unshakeable Legacy
With AGT firmly placing Davido within the conversation for top Nigerian acts who excel critically and commercially, in many ways it felt like his next project would be a sophomore of sorts: finding him either doubling down on the trajectory he had embarked on or attempting to forego cohesion entirely for the sake of more commercial success. Instead, A Better Time straddled the line between both concepts, maintaining some of the best aspects of A Good Time – such as the strength of his marketing campaign – but perhaps trading some of the cohesion for another shot at commercial dominance.
The album’s massive lead single, “FEM” was released two months before the project’s arrival and managed to break his own set record for the Nigerian music video with the most views in less than 24 hours. Allegedly a veiled jab aimed at one of his oldest frenemies and colleagues, Burna Boy, the hit record took on a new life with the events of October Lekki Toll Gate protests due to its symbolism. Like much of Davido’s catalogue the single is lyrically simple yet as a testament to his impact, it spawned both commercial and cultural currency for him, the perfect buildup in an attempt to top his own efforts barely a year before. Followed by “So Crazy”, “Jowo'' and “The Best”, the production strayed slightly from his most recent strategy in a bid to incorporate a more global version of his sound. Best described as a balancing act between Nigeria and the United States of America, the pandemic project featured massive stars (such as Nicki Minaj on “Holy Ground'' and Lil Baby on “So Crazy”) from the latter and budding stars (Bella Shmurda on “Fade” and CKay on “LaLa”) from our shores, once again telegraphing his goal of a unified global Afropop sound on a scale never attempted.
The second installment of Davido’s impending trilogy arrived at the tail end of 2020, a year he had dedicated to touring in support of his last album, A Good Time, barely a year out of release. Gearing up to top his most recent touring efforts – such as selling out the prestigious 02 Arena a year earlier – due to COVID restrictions, he ended up recording and releasing A Better Time instead.
In what has gained recognition as a landmark year for Nigerian art, Davido’s delivery of back-to-back albums (with the promise of a third to come) exponentially elevated his influence and reach almost chronologically. However, an unfortunate casualty of this monumental run was the overall quality of the music when placed in contention with the rest of the global market he is aggressively trying to dominate. Matching the 17-song tracklist of its predecessor, A Better Time – which divided opinions locally while piquing international interest – followed the blueprint Davido had created and implemented with the help of his thankless team, launching him into a sphere occupied by artists impactful enough to shift opinions. Proof of this was the pace-setting popstar’s latest major achievement, his inclusion as one of the Time100 Next 2021 honourees alongside a host of personalities, including but not limited to John David Washington, Dua Lipa and Nyjah Huston. Further, his 2020 exploits accentuate the extent of his pop powers with his plaudits extending for achievements already earned, “If” and “Fall” went gold in the US, while respectively hitting the 100 and 200 million views milestone on Youtube. Achieving pole position on the totem pole has allowed Davido eat his metaphorical cake and have it too, without ever having to compromise his identity in the process.
Words: Makua Adimora, Boluwtife Adeyemi, Oluchukwu Nwaibuike & Abdul-Jabbar Obiagwu
Featured Images Credits: Getty Images, Stephen Tayo & Frank Fieber