Essentials: Obongjayar & Sarz Make Magic On Sweetness
A genre-blending effort from the enigmatic duo.
Obongjayar has always been a special artist, one you could never put in a box. In a 2018 interview with Pitchfork, he was asked how he refined his ideas into the particular and unique sound on Bassey, his 2017 EP. His reply: “Before I started working on Bassey, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition had just come out, and I love that record so much. At the time, I wanted my record to sound like a fusion of that album with Fela Kuti – bringing those two worlds together.” It’s one thing to conceive fusing these two completely disparate artists, but it would take a truly ambitious and kaleidoscopic artist to attempt merging the splintered techno sounds, post-punk tones and hip-hop production of the Detroit MC’s magnum opus with Fela Kuti’s renowned Afrobeat sound. This is exactly what makes Obongjayar unique and a trailblazer of some sort. Ending his reply to the aforementioned question, he concludes: “I didn’t want to sound like anyone else.”
When Obongjayar’s breakthrough project – Which Way Is Forward? – came in early 2020, it was clear as day that he sounded nothing like any of his contemporaries. The brilliant EP, which features themes of identity, racism, spirituality and much more, are all wrapped up in a concoction of sounds: Jazz, Hip-hop, soul, R&B undertones, and of course, Afrobeat. This unconventionality is what has earned him recognition and features from top acts like Giggs, XL Recordings co-founder Richard Russell, Danny Brown, and most recently, the ever-evolving legendary Nigerian producer Sarz, with whom he just released a joint project titled Sweetness.
With just four tracks, Sweetness is concise but also incredibly frustrating. While it’s true that brevity in music is well appreciated these days – considering many projects are packed with filler songs aimed at boosting streaming numbers – the quality of the music on Sweetness is so exquisite that a slightly longer tracklist wouldn’t hurt anyone. With production handled solely by Sarz (obviously), the joint-tape opens with the electro-infused title track. Obongjayar’s sultry pleas and confessions, “Sweetness, don’t give me the runaround, I’m lacking what I found in you / You make me feel right / Sweetness, don’t turn your lights out, on my way right now to you” smoothly glide over Sarz’s synths. While his inflections and flows are mostly soulful, mid-song he switches to a catchy Afrobeat-influenced delivery, wasting no time showing his versatility and affinity for the popular Nigerian genre.
“Gone Girl”, the second track and the project’s centerpiece, sees both Obongjayar and Sarz play to the height of their collective strengths. Here, the 28-year-old singer's infatuation has quickly turned to perplexion. “Is there something I’m not doing? / Are we good? Have I misread the room? / Have we changed and split into two?” he sings worriedly, looking to find answers. While Obongjayar’s lyrical prowess is impressive, his vocal ability is just as astounding: elastic and slightly raspy, sometimes serving as an instrument of its own. This is clearly shown a few seconds past the midway point of the track when the production is stripped of the eerie synths down to bare percussions and Obongjayar’s “Zombie! Zombie!” chants and coos weave round it like an accompanying instrument.
On “If You Say So”, Obongjayar seems to be done pleading or wooing his love interest. “Do you have what it takes to be my baby? / If you wanna waste my time, you should walk out that way,” he sings, opening up the record. While he was head over heels on the title track, he seems to be over it already. He wants all or nothing as he bares his heart out over Sarz’s synthwave/synthpop production, singing: “I don’t need love that’s not genuine / My heart just can’t let you in / Show me you’re not the same”. The confessional “Nobody” closes the tape. Obongjayar is once again in love as he makes his desires known over Sarz’s bouncy drums, which are immediately reminiscent of his 2019 work SINYM (Sarz Is Not Your Mate).
Speaking in a press release, Sarz mentions: “I have never created a project like this before. I would describe the genre as genre-bending….Different elements were blended together to create Sweetness.” He couldn’t be more accurate. None of the songs could be fully boxed into any genre as they all defy any definite pigeonhole. They all sound unique but sonically impressive regardless. This is exactly what you get when you pair an ever-evolving veteran Nigerian producer with a talented experimentalist who constantly challenges and pushes musical boundaries; you get nothing but sweetness.