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Essentials: Raves & Roses threads familiar soundscapes but manages to satisfy at the same time.

Rema's long-awaited debut album sounds overly familiar but it maintains the energy of the present – an element timeless projects tend to possess.

A recent social media post from Rema, Nigeria’s Afropop wunderkind finds him breaking down his long-awaited debut album. “All the features on my album are people I am friends with, it’s all organic, it was never a label situation where I had to work with someone specifically. Just to be clear, for people asking why I didn't have any Afrobeat features on the album, no features on the album came from the label. Every artist on my album is my friend, no feature on my album is forced, that's disgusting.

Coming a long way from his first stage at Motherland in 2019, his confidence is as high as it has ever been. Opening for Naira Marley, Busiswa and Skepta on the same night – his first-ever on stage – Rema’s composure and stage presence belied his age and artistic development. Even nascent, his trajectory was clearly upward in a scene undergoing a major transition from local to global. Securing his place in that scene with two singles and barely a project to his name spoke to the raw talent he possesses and the support of his label, Jonzing World.

Rema’s strong sentiments regarding his collaborative process come off the back of some criticism he has endured in recent times. Called out by DJ Neptune for his lack of effort in securing the release of a collaboration, Rema’s stance on working with other Afrobeat acts became clear. If an artist of a lesser pedigree – as far as talent at least – attempts to work with him, the chances for success are slim.

Three years after his performance on that stage, Rema’s career has come on leaps and bounds. Collaborating with an eclectic host of acts from around the world, everyone from FKA Twigs to Diamond Platnumz and JAE5 benefitted from his voice and pen. Co-signs from Barack Obama, Drake and the Headies also raised his stock. A couple singles and EPs achieved critical mass and placed him in the conversation for Afrobeat’s next-gen frontrunner. However, contemporaries like Fireboy DML and Joeboy all held pole positions in one aspect: albums. With each of the aforementioned acts delivering projects in 2020 and 2021 respectively, their artistry underwent significant growth, proving they had a muscle, not many Afrobeat acts possessed or were able to express fluidly.

Throwing himself into collaborations raised Rema’s profile but to truly compete, he would need to show he could put together a coherent, cohesive album. The risk of being pigeonholed as a singles artist is most prevalent in the African market where one hit single could spell the end of an artist’s project catalogue before it even begins. Worse yet, the pressure of putting projects together for such artists could translate into albums that sound like they were all radio/club singles.

Teasing his debut project shortly before the release of his Virgil Abloh-assisted single “Peace of Mind”, the official announcement came right at the start of the summer when he tweeted about working with Love Renaissance point man, 6LACK. The record would go on to become the second track off his debut album, Raves & Roses.

Helmed by the singles “Soundgasm”, “Calm Down” and “FYN”, Rema’s heavily discussed knack for versatility was already on full display before the tracklist was released. Dithering between mellow Afropop and Hip-Hop, audiences developed theories about what the project could eventually sound like. Would it be more Afrobeat than anything else? Would we get more raunchy lyricism? Would we get the Rema who made the excellent trap-infused “Why” again?

Properly debuting his signature fusion genre named Afrorave, Raves & Roses manages to surprise and sate at the same time. Opening with the eponymous “Divine”, Rema details personal events surrounding his birth and upbringing with fervour and a seriousness rarely seen. Largely a tribute to his mother, the intro comes out as left-field considering Rema’s preferred subject matter. The Sarz produced opener transitions seamlessly into the 6LACK teased “Hold Me”. R&B Rema’s first appearance on the project is one of his strongest performances across the unheard 13 songs. Two verses in Pidgin English set the mood for 6LACK’s falsetto to close out the record in spectacular fashion.

The instrumentation laden Dirty is an unusual interpretation of Rema’s semi-pornographic lyrics. Opting for horns instead of heavy-hitting synths, the focus on his bars is matched by the spectacular music that backs it. Chock full of his signature off the cuff slang, bars like “Red Bull and Dogoyaro for tonight Royal Rumble, this one na ogologo and her booty go ibrogodo” show that Rema never strays too far from his standardized subject matter.

The album does not truly start again until Chris Brown's appearance on “Time n Affection”. The Jaegen (of Ramriddlz fame) and London produced record does not necessarily expand Rema's sonic addendum but it is nice to see him alongside Breezy. In what is almost considered a Nigerian Afrobeat artist's rite of passage at this point, his Chris Brown duet leaves little else to be desired. Arguably one of the biggest breakout songs since the album's release six days ago, the Chris Brown stimulus package seems to have maintained its potency.

The three record run that follows “Time n Affection” unfortunately feels like bloatware on a new Android – you might need this app down the line, but for now, it only takes up valuable space. “Jo”, “Mara” and “Love” are all extensions of the same idea, one is the Yoruba word for dance, the other is a slang used to denote excitement and “Love” is well, love. However, Rema is due credit for making sure his filler does not feel like filler in the grand scheme of the project. The three records transition professionally, his vocal performances are stellar and the beat selection is appropriate. The potential for either of these three records to become sleepers with the passage of time is great.

“Are You There?” marks the birth of a Rema we have only seen shades of in the past: conscious Rema. Tackling inequality and poverty can prove tricky for the most politically charged artists and for an act who prefers to stick to the breezier stuff, those stakes are heightened. Rema manages to tread the line uniquely – acknowledging the issues but restating his reality. Making it out of the situations most of his compatriots deal with every day does not exclude him from empathizing. It also does not make him a freedom fighter by default.

The album’s next highest point is “Wine”, a sultry duet with French singer-songwriter Yseult, a record as romantic as it is seductive. Keeping the pace with the other R&B tinged Afropop records on the album, it is the perfect leadup to the project’s outro, “Runaway” – another record in the same mould.

Brilliant rhyme schemes and unique harmonic interpretations have always been weapons in Rema’s arsenal and on Raves & Roses, he wields them to full effect over the project’s 59-minute runtime. The records sound familiar but maintain the energy of the present – an element timeless projects tend to possess.

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