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IfeOluwa Nihinlola

Omawumi’s first two albums, Wonder Woman and Lasso of Truth, reference the same superhero. The new one, Timeless, isn’t a departure from the theme.

After all, Diana the Wonder Woman is a citizen of Theymiscira, a mythical, timeless paradise.

Artists and critics often qualify works of art as ‘timeless’: artists do this when they imagine they’ve created something important; critics use it if they’re besotted with clichés. In turning adjective to noun, Omawumi makes not just an empty qualification of her music, but a statement of artistic intent: she is making music that transcends time.

‘Play na Play’, the album’s first track, is perhaps the best support for Omawumi’s reach for prestige. It features three-time Grammy winner Angelique Kidjo, the artist you want with you on a statement song. Kidjo’s international audience and critical appeal represents an artistic asymptote for Omawumi’s career curve to approach. And given what is evident in Timeless—in voice and vision, with Cobhams Asuquo and a competent band—she has chosen the right trajectory.

There’s a tendency to believe that to support the grandness of that title, Omawumi has made a drastic change to her sound. But this opinion doesn’t take proper account of her body of work. Omawumi’s work has been consistently eclectic, favouring movement through different genres over staying with ...

Omawumi’s first two albums, Wonder Woman and Lasso of Truth, reference the same superhero. The new one, Timeless, isn’t a departure from the theme.

After all, Diana the Wonder Woman is a citizen of Theymiscira, a mythical, timeless paradise.

Artists and critics often qualify works of art as ‘timeless’: artists do this when they imagine they’ve created something important; critics use it if they’re besotted with clichés. In turning adjective to noun, Omawumi makes not just an empty qualification of her music, but a statement of artistic intent: she is making music that transcends time.

‘Play na Play’, the album’s first track, is perhaps the best support for Omawumi’s reach for prestige. It features three-time Grammy winner Angelique Kidjo, the artist you want with you on a statement song. Kidjo’s international audience and critical appeal represents an artistic asymptote for Omawumi’s career curve to approach. And given what is evident in Timeless—in voice and vision, with Cobhams Asuquo and a competent band—she has chosen the right trajectory.

There’s a tendency to believe that to support the grandness of that title, Omawumi has made a drastic change to her sound. But this opinion doesn’t take proper account of her body of work. Omawumi’s work has been consistently eclectic, favouring movement through different genres over staying with a single sound. Lasso of Truth, for instance, starts with a jive-worthy swing out of the 1980s, then globetrots to EDM, South African House, reggae, and R&B.

Timeless is just as diverse in genre, with the distinction that here, Omawumi resists styles that will appeal to a mainstream audience. She focuses instead on the timeless form of jazz, which Nina Simone described as “black classical music.” Danceable pop might be the way to get Swizz Beats to move to your song on Instagram and Drake to feature you on a Grammy-nominated song, but jazz remains “one of the few high art musical forms enjoying a worldwide listenership.”

“Naija pop doesn’t know its ancestors,” tweeted critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo. But it is hard to listen to jazz without hearing ancestors local and foreign. In Timeless, Omawumi even samples ‘Ololufe Mi’, Fela Kuti’s rare love song from his highlife and jazz playing days with the Koola Lobitos band.

Omawumi’s former albums featured pop stars in their prime like 2Baba, EL Dee, Flavor, Naeto C, Waje and Wizkid. But in Timeless, apart from the aforementioned Angelique Kidjo, she’s supported by South African band Uhuru and Malian singer songwriter Salif Keita in ‘Africa’ which harks back, thematically, to ‘African Way’ on Lasso of Truth.

In range and style, Timeless is reminiscent of American singer Somi’s The Lagos Music Salon, which was inspired by an 18-month sabbatical in Lagos. Somi, too, featured Angelique Kidjo on ‘Lady Revisited’ while sampling Fela. A monkey makes an overt appearance in a skit on Somi’s album, but a covert one on Omawumi’s ‘Somtin’, which is based on a popular Nigerianism: “monkey no fine e mama like am.” (The monkey isn’t fine, but its mother likes it.)

Comparing Omawumi and Somi reveals the work needed for the former to rightly steer her sonic flights, because, despite the skill with which she shifts gears through various styles, the ending of Timeless is something of a fumbled landing. The album’s first four tracks—‘Play na Play’, ‘Dolapo’, ‘I No Sure’, and ‘Ololufe’—all done in different strains of jazz, are a highpoint that the album’s latter tracks do not match.

This sound will alienate a bulk of her fans, because rarely can an artist produce music with such disregard for Nigerians’ dance preference while retaining mainstream appeal. Timeless is tuned for international ears, and Omawumi’s efforts reveal the strength of her voice and musical nous. But it will take more than one go-around to earn the attention of listeners across the Atlantic.

“Now I’m tilting toward the direction of what I really really want to do,” she has said. “I’m convinced you’ll like it.”

Omawumi might have to be content with a shrinking audience if they don’t like it. She is obviously gunning for the Nigerian canon, one that may be loosely defined but has no space for safe mediocrity.

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