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Some Artists Just Do Singles Better

Success has no blueprint, and that is as liberating as it is overwhelming. An audience falls in love with an artist for a reason, and artists need to figure out what their selling point is and apply it to their strategy.

I recently wrote a review of Naira Marley’s God’s Timing’s The Best. It was a decent effort by Naira and his team, but at the end of each listen, it felt like something was missing. That feeling sparked a conversation at the office and we concluded that maybe not every artist needs to put out albums. Some artists are just better at being “Singles Artists''.

Crafting an album is more than just lumping a bunch of new songs together in chronology. It has never been about that. It is a holistic representation of the artist’s mind-space, portrayed in a way that appeals to the artist’s audience. It looks simple on paper — like most things do — but not every artist can craft a worthwhile project that stands the test of time.

This seems pretty straightforward and I’m sure people reading this will understand what I’m saying. However, we need to consider certain factors that affect an artist’s decision to put out projects or full-length albums.

Retaining the attention of your core fans is probably the most significant reason for releasing an album, whereas releasing singles can be a strategy for gaining new ones. A project can captivate your listeners and take them through a plethora of emotions, doing so with different types of songs and guest features. These albums usually birth tours named after them, and in an artist’s quest for success, money, and musical domination, it is important to keep all eyes (and ears) on your work.

Let’s use Afrobeats as a case study. In recent years, Africa’s most prized genre has received global acclaim and now penetrates spaces we never thought possible, even as recently as 15 years ago. We’ve seen old releases make their way back into the charts through TikTok and even Instagram reels, like CKay’s “Love Nwantiti” and more recently Melvitto’s “Gentility”. We’ve also seen our artists win Grammys and reach the pinnacle of the Billboard chart (Tems recently hit #1 on Billboard Hot 100).

Every artist and record label associated with the genre wants to tap into that and become the next global sensation. As a result, music pros tailor their image and releases to reach the global market, and a dense discography could indeed help with this. The pressure from record labels ensures that artists satisfy their recording contracts, and could influence the artist’s image and the quality of music created — I’m sure we remember how Davido feels about his Son of Mercy EP released under Sony.

Artists also put certain pressures on themselves. Simply witnessing their peers achieve things with projects could propel them to do the same. Unfortunately, the outcome might not be one they hoped for. You can argue that an album is best created when an artist has a bunch of things to say, in tandem with the mental space they find themselves in. Music fueled by unpleasant emotions isn’t all bad, some sad songs hit differently, but I’m not sure pride and jealousy are good sources of inspiration.

Trying to understand an artist’s motivations is a speculative effort. We can only make educated guesses based on the music and the narratives that come with an album rollout. Over the years, we’ve had artists who enjoyed dominant runs with their singles and took the country by storm. They became victims of their success and failed to produce full-length projects with a long shelf life.

One of such artists is Tekno. As a brilliant songwriter and producer, he has captivated his audience with catchy, playful lyrics that turned into longstanding hit records, such as his 2016 single “Pana”, and “Duro” released in 2017. However, it is unfortunate to see that his debut LP Old Romance (2020) didn’t live up to the standards he set for himself and turned out to be an underwhelming release. Whether it was the quality of the songs or the album’s lack of cohesion, it just doesn’t leave you wanting more. The fact that he has one of the biggest songs in the country right now with “Buga” buttresses my point — Tekno is best as a hitmaker.

Zlatan was responsible for ushering in one of the most infectious eras on Nigeria’s music scene in recent times. From his breakout single “My Body”, almost everything he touched turned to Zanku, with hit records like “Jogor” and “Killin Dem” resulting from that dominating run. He released his debut album riding off that wave of virality, but it fell flat — the reviews of Zanku turned out to be quite negative. He tried again with his sophomore album Resan which certainly did better than his first but still wasn’t good enough to captivate his listeners for any length of time.

Another artist whose music I think is plagued by this is Davido. I know I might have struck a nerve in people reading this, but just hear me out. We all know Davido is probably the best hitmaker in this country; he prides himself on that and it’s what his career has been built on since breaking out in 2011.

When you look back on his growth, you’ll realize his best runs have come in a series of hit records. “Dami Duro”, “Skelewu” and “Aye” are significant releases from the 2011-2014 era of Davido. He went on another insane run between 2017 and 2019, with songs like “If”, “Fall”, “Like Dat”, “Assurance” and “Blow My Mind”. While he’s amazing at making hit songs, the major criticism of Davido’s music is his inability to craft timeless records.

His first album OBO: The Genesis was a good attempt at 19, but the best songs were released as singles before the album dropped. It’s the same situation on A Good Time; with 5 pre-released singles and not enough captivating album cuts (“Sweet in the Middle” also turned out to be a short-lived hit). He did a better job crafting A Better Time but the album is still mainly a collection of really good hit songs that didn’t live past the era they were released in. None of these albums turned out to be a truly great body of work.

The next question I have to ask is: are albums for everyone? It is clear that release strategies are not a one-size-fits-all plan that applies to all artists because everyone has different strengths, and maybe artists — with the help of A&Rs and label executives — need to start playing to their strengths to find what works.

Here are a few examples. Before his 2022 debut, Rema released 3 EPs in 2019, then went on a series of single releases which include “Woman” and “Peace of Mind”. He spent time exploring different sounds and strategies for marketing and release before arriving at Rave and Roses, and he is now reaping the rewards of biding his time. On the other hand, even with a healthy repertoire of singles, Fireboy DML’s strategy appears more project-based, with the release of his third studio album on the horizon despite only breaking out in 2019.

These artists were born in this era of music, which explains why their approach might differ from those who come from an older era. The crux of the matter is to release music as it works for you. There is nothing wrong with being a “Singles Artist” — several careers are built on that type of success. A legacy built on singles is just as valid as one built on lengthy LP releases, it just depends on what endears an artist to their fans.

Fans and the audience only ride for artists who are secure in themselves and their craft, and in a time where attention is the currency of the game, you have a limited amount of tries to get it right.

There is a high level of experimentation right now, with a lot of room to test the waters. Success has no blueprint, and that is as liberating as it is overwhelming. An audience falls in love with an artist for a reason, and artists need to figure out what their selling point is and apply it to their strategy. In-between labels reevaluating the guidance they offer artists, and artists discovering the formula that works for them, I’m sure we will see artists grow into the best versions of themselves in the next few years.

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