Last month, in an attempt to flip an unfavorable narrative, Jay Z posted some #TidalFacts on Twitter to offset the substantial flack his new company had taken. One of the #facts mentioned was that he'd sent his cousin to Nigeria to search for new talent. Shortly thereafter, Complex discovered that Roc Nation may have been looking at Ice Prince—although he is already an established Nigerian artist.
But Jay's interest in Nigeria is not a new thing for hip-hop. The first real sign of outside attention came with the success of the artist D'Banj back in 2012, when he released the massive international hit "Oliver Twist." The success of "Oliver Twist" led to Kanye West releasing D'Banj's label compilation, D'King's Men, through G.O.O.D. Music and featuring the artist on his Cruel Summer compilation.
Several American artists have recorded with African artists of late—T.I. appeared on P-Square's Prince-flavored "Ejeajo," Rick Ross had recorded with the duo prior, and Ice Prince has recorded with French Montana. But none of the records were even pushed in the United States. Nigeria's made considerable inroads in the U.K. ("Oliver Twist" reached No. 9 on the U.K. charts) thanks in part to a thriving immigrant population centralized in London. But to date, the U.S. is a wide-open market. The closest we've had to Nigerian hits over the past three years was last summer's Destiny's Child gospel record "Say Yes" and this year's DJ Mustard-style "Classic Man"—recorded by Jidenna, a Nigerian-American star who highlights Nigerian dandy culture in the video.
There's a good reason to believe that Nigeria could very well influence the future of popular music both internationally and here in the U.S. First off, Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, and, thanks in part to its oil wealth, the African nation with the highest GDP. In 2009, Nollywood—Nigeria's answer to Hollywood—became second only to Bollywood in film production, surpassing the United States; likewise, its music industry is highly developed. Nigeria's stars are Africa's stars as well; and although Ghana and South Africa, in particular, can rival Nigeria in creative output, for the moment, Nigeria feels like the world's aesthetic center.
This is due in part to Nigeria's relationship with the outside world—and the way it co-opts other styles, but presents them in a singularly Nigerian way. Listening to a Nigerian record in isolation could fool you into thinking it was just R&B, Soca, EDM, hip-hop, dancehall, South African-style house music, or Ghanaian Azonto. But hearing the country's biggest stars in succession makes it clear these styles are shades of paint for the Nigerian Afropop artist. The elements that bring it all together can be abstract—the cultural cues and references to Yoruba and Igbo culture, or the melodies that reference Nigerian musical history. But there are two common links for an outsider: Many of the songs are sung in pidgin English, making them easy club hits. Secondly, the rhythms of Nigeria's current popular sound, though much more complex than American records, are also much more compulsively danceable.
In Nigeria, the rhythm is as important to the composition as its melody. The rhythmic bed of each song is constantly shifting from song to song, although the songs all tend to be fast—closer to current high-energy pop in tempo than the slow booming hip-hop sound of Atlanta. At the same time, the image and style of the artists are reminiscent of American hip-hop—full of cool cars and clothes, and general video swag closer to rap than any other pop form. The underlying rhythms, rather than a straight four-on-the-floor beat, work on what is called, in latin music, a clave rhythm—the 2-3 or 3-2 pattern around which the beat is syncopated. It often gives the groove of each record a slight canter or gallop, a feel like the song is about to take off without you.
It's this rhythm that explains why Nigeria feels like popular music's future, which is why Jay Z's sudden interest in Nigeria's music scene is so exciting. Here's hoping the U.S. music industry, should it look to Nigeria for popular music's future, recognizes the breadth of Nigeria's potential within the U.S. Meek Mill has already recorded a song with Nigerian artist Davido; WizKid reportedly has songs with Chris Brown and Rihanna. But time will tell if America is willing to look not just to Nigeria's stars, but to its entire musical universe.
Here are five records that are hot in Nigeria right now.
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him @somanyshrimp.