Essentials: Gbagada Express favours cohesion over progression.
On Boj's latest effort, Gbagada Express, cohesion is favoured over progression, features are extensive and expectations need to be measured.
Popularly regarded as a key part in the process that helped the alte brand emerge as more than a subgenre of Nigerian Afrobeats, Boj’s transitions over the years from purveyor of an obscure, derived sound to the Nigerian underground music industry’s trusted hookman have been well documented through his projects. On his latest effort, cohesion is favoured over progression, features are extensive and expectations need to be measured. With three projects under his belt: #BOTM, #BOTM Deluxe, and 2017’s Magic, Gbagada Express is his fourth album in his decade long career.
While many might expect Boj’s stature in the industry to be more pronounced considering his impact in the nascent stages of the Alte scene and modern Afropop’s global push, it also bears consideration that one has to step up to claim their spot, an action more than a few acts from the era are guilty of not doing enough. Afrobeats' recent global dominance means it is the genre on multiple lips and with that comes certain concessions but also a number of standards that must not only be set but rigorously followed. The opinion that Afrobeats’ colourful and flamboyant nature is key to the genre’s success is flawed and has been disproved due to performances from acts such as Tems, Wizkid (particularly on Made In Lagos) and Burna Boy. The world is ready for brilliant interpretations of the genre as long as they present originality, believability and show clear progression, traits that seem to be sorely lacking on Boj’s Gbagada Express.
With 20 features in total, Boj effectively drowns himself out on more than half of the project. An eclectic blend of unexpected names as well as pleasant surprises populated the roster: Wizkid, Fireboy DML, Shaybo, Buju, Fresh L, Darkovibes, Pretty Boy D-O, Kofi Jamar, Joey B, Moliy, Melissa, Teezee, Enny, Victony, Amaarae, Zamir, Davido, Mr Eazi, Obongjayar and Tiwa Savage. The exhaustive list of features denotes the exact sentiment most listeners might experience on a first listen. On a project that largely feels like it should be named “Featuring Boj”, the crooner’s lack of identity is haunting. For an act credited with birthing an entire subgenre and the cultural impact that entails, certain decisions taken on this album call his artistry into question.
Wizkid’s appearance is perhaps the most atrocious. Gracing the record “Awolowo'' (three years post-release) with a hook and verse, the already crowded single (which originally featured Darko Vibes and Kwesi Arthur) suffers from the added weight of Wizkid’s star power instead of being buoyed by his success. However, a round figure is better than an odd one, 19 features would have been just as bad.
While it might seem excessive to hold onto the feature list as proof of regression, context is important to explain why this spells a dark turn for the singer-songwriter. For comparison, DJ Khaled’s Khaled Khaled has only seven more features than Gbagada Express, at least 20 minutes added to the runtime and repeats at least two of the artists. DJ Khaled’s inspirational monologues and third-person yells are his only vocal contributions.
It is clear enough testament to Boj’s vocal prowess that so many of his contemporaries consider him a strong enough character to consistently touch base, he needs to see the same prowess in himself if he is to level up, however. Dabbling between his trans-UK background and his Nigerian roots, Gbagada Express is perhaps Boj at his most well-rounded, and that might be the issue. All of the album’s production is complementary to his once unique blend of Palm Wine-esque Afropop, however since that album exited its first iteration, it feels like there have not been any worthwhile updates.